Who is the Jewish woman now in charge of UNESCO?

Audrey Azoulay was born in Paris to a Jewish-Moroccan family from Essaouira.

October 17, 2017 05:03
3 minute read.
Audrey Azoulay

Audrey Azoulay. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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For former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay, Friday’s election as director-general of UNESCO marked the latest in a series of moves on her fast track to political ascension.

Thirty countries voted in her favor to succeed Bulgarian Irina Bokova, against 28 votes for her main adversary, Qatari Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari.

Azoulay’s election undoubtedly surprised both Paris and Azoulay herself. But while her election offered French diplomacy an unexpected achievement, the professional course of UNESCO’s next chief has already been paved with impressive milestones.

In fact, prior to her nomination in 2016 as minister of culture, 45-year old Azoulay had held several high posts in the cultural milieu, even though she was relatively unknown to the French public at large.

Audrey Azoulay was born in Paris to a Jewish-Moroccan family from Essaouira.

Her father Andre Azoulay has served as special adviser both to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and to his deceased father, the previous king Hassan II. Her mother Katia Brami is a well-known figure in France’s cultural scene. Azoulay followed in her father’s senior-official footsteps, graduating from the French public- administration school ENA which educates the French elite. She also graduated from the prestigious Paris political science institute SciencePo, Dauphine University and the British University of Lancaster; an educational progression which traced her path into the heart of French administration.

After a short career in finance and banking, Azoulay turned to the arts and cinema, taking up the position of financial director of the French National Center for Cinema. There, she became captivated by the French film industry, a passion which would accompany her throughout her career.

Azoulay herself once said that ‘’what marked me most professionally was cinema.’’ In 2014, President Francois Hollande appointed her as special adviser at Elysee Palace – the official residence and offices of the French president – in charge of culture and communication.

In 2016 President Hollande proceeded with a partial reshuffling of his government.

As part of this reshuffling Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin had to leave. Hollande nominated in her place Audrey Azoulay.

Azoulay served as minister for only a year and a half, until the May 2017 elections. One of her associates describes her as a ‘’hard working person, educated and fast-thinking.

She is pleasant to work with, but expect rapid and thorough results. A typical ENA graduate one would think. Still, she is passionate about art and creation.’’ Azoulay’s career could have come to a halt at this point; her patron President Hollande was suffering from unprecedented low popularity and did not run for a second mandate.

Yet before leaving his post, Hollande advanced her candidacy for UNESCO’s next director- general. President Macron was confronted with a ‘fait accompli’’ of a sort, embraced this situation and took it several steps further.

In many ways, she resembled what Macron stands for – the new, ambitious and political French generation. More so, her continuous efforts to protect French cinema against the American mega-film industry correspond perfectly with Macron’s international image of a Trump-opposite European leader. Azoulay and Macron are both adamant in their defense of independent European creativity against globalization.

Regarding Israel, Azoulay is still an enigma to a certain degree. She has spoken several times in the past against the rise of antisemitism and is very proud of her Jewish-Moroccan heritage.

In 2016, while serving as culture minister, she accompanied then prime minister Manuel Valls on his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. She also participated in a special tribute for late film actress and director Ronit Elkabetz, and took part in other French-Israeli joint cultural activities. On the other hand, she is clearly identified with French left-wing policies and by no means supports the Netanyahu government.

Six months from now, Azoulay will be confronted in UNESCO with votes over two anti-Israeli resolutions – postponed last week so as not to overshadow the already sensitive voting process for the post of director-general.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has ordered the Foreign Ministry to prepare for Israel’s impending pullout of UNESCO, coinciding to the US exit of this agency. But with Azoulay as the head of UNESCO, Jerusalem might decide to reconsider that

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