Minutes after France’s former culture minister Audrey Azoulay was elected to head UNESCO on Friday evening, Israel’s Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing Likud party, was asked whether her victory over the Qatari candidate for the post might prompt Israel to reconsider its decision Thursday to join the US in withdrawing from the UN body.
Katz, who was in the Channel 2 TV studio to comment on President Donald Trump’s Iran speech, was momentarily taken aback. “Don’t expect UNESCO to suddenly now become a Zionist organization,” he retorted. But then he reflected a little, and added, “If it does change its policy,” he said, then “certainly” Israel might reconsider.
Azoulay’s path to the leadership of UNESCO was paved by a division in the Arab world. Egypt and Qatar both fielded candidates for the post, and Azoulay eventually squeezed past both of them over six tortuous rounds of voting.
For Israel, Azoulay’s victory is plainly a cause for celebration. She is the first Jewish head of UNESCO, and, Channel 2 reported, has relatives in Israel.
At the same time, the accuracy of Katz’s waspish retort that UNESCO would not now automatically change its nature is reflected in the fact that the outgoing UNESCO chief, Irina Bukova, was a firm critic of some of her own organization’s anti-Israel resolutions.
When Azoulay, then number two at France’s National Cinema Centre, was named culture minister last year, she barely had a public profile — she didn’t even have a Twitter account.
That was quickly rectified as the career civil servant, long used to working behind the scenes in the higher spheres of French administrations, got her first exposure to the brights lights of politics.
Azoulay declared her last-minute candidacy to lead UNESCO, the UN’s cultural body, in March, saying that “France was perfectly legitimate on the subject of culture, education and sciences.”
But she was not able to campaign fully until leaving her post after President Emmanuel Macron named a new government following his election in May.
During her tenure of just over a year as culture minister under leftist president Francois Hollande, Azoulay secured a budget increase for her ministry after years of deep cuts.
Her tenure was also marked by the passage of a “creation and heritage” law aimed at ensuring artistic freedom and protecting France’s myriad historic sites, the culmination of years of efforts.
Defender of French films
Azoulay was born in Paris on August 4, 1972, into a Moroccan Jewish family, originally from Essaouira, which gave pride of place to books and debate.
Her father is Andre Azoulay, a banker and adviser to the Morocco’s King Mohammed VI — as he was to the king’s father, Hassan II — and her mother is the writer Katia Brami.
She studied at Sciences-Po university in Paris and at Lancaster University in Britain before graduating from France’s ENA, an elite school that grooms France’s future leaders.
During her studies she worked in banking, an experience she said she “hated.”
She spent time at France’s Court of Audits and several years in various media departments at the Culture Ministry, before joining the CNC, guardian of the French film industry, as financial director in 2006.
By 2011 she had become deputy director at the CNC, making her a key player in the structure which regulates the industry and doles out subsidies for French productions.
“It’s the film industry that formed me the most professionally,”said Azoulay, who has also been a staunch defender of the French industry’s “cultural exception” against the Hollywood juggernaut.
“She is a brilliant and passionate woman, a friend of artists and creativity,” CNC president Frederique Bredin said in 2014, when she was tapped to become Hollande’s culture and communications adviser, on her way to the top post at the Culture Ministry.
Path to victory
Azoulay, 45, came from behind after six rounds of voting to defeat Qatari candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari, also a former culture minister, after he failed to pick up support from other Gulf states that are part of a Saudi-led coalition blockading Qatar.
The election to head the UN’s embattled culture and education agency took place a day after the US quit the body, accusing it of anti-Israel bias.
The politically charged campaign to succeed Bokova was overshadowed by Washington’s announcement Thursday that it planned to withdraw from the body after years of tensions over decisions seen as critical of Israel. Israel itself announced shortly afterwards that it would follow suit.
Arab states had argued that the job of director-general of the 195-member organization should go to one of them for the first time, but regional tensions complicated the task.
In an intermediate vote on Friday afternoon, the 58 members of the Executive Board had preferred the French candidate to the Egyptian Moushira Khattab, by 31 votes to 25 (two blank votes), to face Al-Kawari in the final round.
Arab states have been divided between backers of oil-rich Qatar and its poorer rival Egypt, which is part of a Saudi-led coalition that has been blockading Qatar since June over its alleged support for radical Islamists and ties to Iran.
In the face of Arab divisions, France presented Azoulay as a consensus figure who could mend fences within the organization and sooth tensions caused by recent resolutions against Israel.
“Now more than ever UNESCO needs a project… which restores confidence and overcomes political divisions,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement reacting to the US pullout.
Lebanon’s candidate Vera El-Khoury, who bowed out at an earlier stage in the voting, said the power game at play in the race had shown UNESCO members “did not give a damn” about the candidates’ programs.
Qatar lobbied intensely for the post — and has increased its financial contribution to support UNESCO in recent years — but its candidate was dogged by old allegations of anti-Semitism.
Al-Kawari has notably been accused by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which combats anti-Semitism, of remaining silent over the presence of anti-Semitic books at a fair in Doha when he was culture minister.
This is not the first time the US — a founding member — has walked out on the 195-member UNESCO, best known for producing a list of World Heritage sites including tourist favorites such as the Grand Canyon or Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
The US decision, which is to take effect on December 31, 2018, underlined America’s drift away from international institutions under President Donald Trump.
The agency’s outgoing head, Bulgaria’s Bokova, told French radio that UNESCO’s “universal mission was in jeopardy.”
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the decision to leave reflected “US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias.”
Ex-president Ronald Reagan first pulled the US out in 1984 over alleged financial mismanagement and claims of anti-US bias in some of its policies.
Washington returned to the fold in 2002, seeing UNESCO as a vehicle for combatting extremism in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
But in 2011 relations soured again after UNESCO admitted Palestine as a full member, prompting the US to cut its funding to the organization, leaving a gaping hole in its finances.
The rift continued to fester in recent years, with the organization becoming the scene of repeated diplomatic flare-ups after efforts led by Arab countries to pass resolutions critical of Israel that have denied Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem, Hebron.