Challenge of heading UNESCO today
20 October, 2017
For the second time ever, a woman, this time from France, will be the head of UNESCO. The 58 members of the Executive Board of the United Nations' cultural agency, based in Paris, on 13 October selected France’s former Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay for the position of director-general of the organisation, after five rounds of voting that began on 9 October. Her candidacy was put forward last, amid wide expectations that it is the turn of a representative of an Arab nation to lead UNESCO. But Azoulay received more votes than her main competitor, Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, despite protests by Arab intellectuals and below-the-belt media attacks targeting her Jewish origins. Even though in 2016 she became minister under former President Francois Hollande, Azoulay won the ardent backing of his successor Emmanuel Macron, who lobbied for her actively overseas during the last few months.
She will succeed outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, who was heavily criticised over Palestine's inclusion as a member of the organisation. Azoulay’s nomination came a day after the US and Israel announced they will pull out of UNESCO over its perceived anti-Israel bias. “In this time of crisis we need more than ever to support, strengthen and reform UNESCO and not leave it,” Azoulay told reporters, saying she would modernise the organisation.
Born in Paris, to a father who was an advisor to two Moroccan kings and a mother who is a writer, Azoulay has the important political background. She is a graduate of France’s school of public administration, the Ecole nationale d’administration, and holds an MA in Business Administration from the University of Lancaster (UK) and a degree in political science from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (France). Her career began in the offices in charge of supporting public broadcasting in France and went on to serve as rapporteur for the French public audit authority and legal expert for the European Commission in the fields of culture and communication. Later, over a period of nine years she worked in the French National Centre of Cinematography (CNC).
While it remains to be seen how Azoulay will deal with the deep financial and political crisis in UNESCO, Israel has already indicated that it may revise its decision to leave, depending on the new director-general’s actions.