How did France's Audrey Azoulay wind up as the new UNESCO chief?

Her success is due in part to the rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar that has sparked massive divisions between the countries of the Arab world.

October 14, 2017 17:21
2 minute read.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. (photo credit: PHILIPPE WOJAZER / REUTERS)


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PARIS – Audrey Azoulay’s election Friday night as UNESCO’s next director-general marks an unexpected victory for French diplomacy.

Her name first came up as candidate for the spot at the twilight of François Hollande’s presidency when she served as culture minister.

But the end of Hollande’s political career risked ending her political ambitions, as well, as new the new president, Emmanuel Macron, found himself in an uncomfortable position with a candidate he did not choose, to a post he did not seek.

In fact, countries hosting UN agency headquarters rarely seek to also conquer the agencies’ leadership.

Still, Macron took it upon himself personally to advance Azoulay’s candidacy – a gamble that paid off.

The battle over UNESCO’s top post was dramatic, to say the least.

Several voting rounds reduced the seven-name list into five, positioning Qatar at the head with 22 votes and Egypt and France in second place with 18 votes each.

France defeated Egypt in the special duel on Friday afternoon, bringing Azoulay to face Qatar’s Hamad Bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in the final vote.

French diplomats admit their goal from the very beginning was to reach the final stretch – second place. That, in itself, would have been viewed by Paris as an honorable achievement considering that France started campaigning for its candidate very late in the game.

Arab countries started campaigning much earlier – and not only specifically for their four candidates, but also for an Arab candidate, in general.

UNESCO has been headed for many years by European or North Americans, they claimed, so it was time for an Arab figure to take up this international post. Egypt was actually counting on its candidate being the first Arab, first African and first Muslim woman to ever head UNESCO – you cannot get more politically correct than that.

But the fact that the Arabs had four candidates to begin with worked against them.

With the backdrop of the Qatari-Saudi Arabia rift, strong anti-Qatar sentiments within the Arab world worked against the Qatari candidate. More so, rumors about Qatar applying pressure on poor African countries to vote in favor of its candidate portrayed a negative image of a rich country using its financial means to land a prestigious international post.

It worked for a while, perhaps, but not until the very end.

France wasn’t the only one facing Arab internal havoc, however.

China, for instance, also could have profited from this Arab split, but its candidate received just five votes in an early stage of the voting.

The “Macron effect” came into action with Azoulay benefiting from Macron’s popularity in the global arena and his fresh, determined image.

The US decision to pull out of UNESCO also played also into the hands of Paris, enhancing the “Macron effect.”

To the international community, Macron represents the exact opposite of US President Donald Trump – he is young, level headed, champions collective diplomacy and respects the international bodies, which is exactly what the doctor prescribed for UNESCO at this time of crisis when its credibility and budgets are at rock bottom.

It is no secret that Jerusalem preferred anybody but the Qatari candidate to head UNESCO. The Americans’ decision to pull out and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to follow suit apparently directed Jerusalem’s attention away from the UNESCO vote.

It is only now, with one foot out of door, that Jerusalem is beginning to consider what Azoulay’s election actually means for Israel.

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