UNESCO has recently announced that the former French culture minister, Audrey Azoulay, will be its next director general, according to a report by Aurelien Breeden in the New York Times. On October 13, Azoulay was elected to the position for a tenure of four years. She won the vote to lead the cultural agency by a short margin, with thirty votes to twenty-eight, against the Qatari candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari. Despite two and a half years of using his financial leverage to campaign for the job, and an expectation that it was the Arab region’s turn to run the organization, Al-Kawari was seemingly handicapped by his country’s diplomatic isolation. The director general is a post usually chosen by UNESCO’s executive board after three rounds, and the results of the election will be confirmed during UNESCO’s general conference next month. In related news, the US and Israel recently announced their withdrawal from UNESCO, effective December 31, 2018.
Azoulay, whose father once served as an adviser to the kings of Morocco, was minister of culture for only fifteen months, after serving as former French president François Hollande’s councillor. During her tenure as minister of culture, the country’s budget for cultural heritage was slashed, though funding for French museums was seemingly a priority for the ministry when she headed it. While she claimed to support the campaign launched by France to protect cultural sites in conflict zones globally, her commitment was disputed by multiple observers, including Jack Lang, France’s special envoy for the mission, who publicly stated she “made things very difficult for the project.”
The French candidate’s victory was apparently something of an upset due to the fact that UNESCO’s headquarters are based in Paris and UN tradition dictates that the host country of one of its agencies should not run it. Her bid was supported Hollande—against the counsel of the foreign affairs ministry, according to diplomatic sources—and was also endorsed by his successor, Emmanuel Macron.
The new director general will take charge of an organization that has “lost 40% of its budget in adjusted value over the last decade,” according to a Western diplomat. The crisis deepened under current director general Irina Bokova’s watch, when the US suspended its financial contributions back in 2011—more than thirty percent of UNESCO’s annual budget—after Palestine was admitted as a full member state.