(JTA) — France’s former culture minister, Audrey Azoulay, was elected to head UNESCO after a cliffhanger vote on Friday evening, becoming the first Jew at the helm of the UN agency.
By a margin of 30-28 votes, Azoulay, who is Jewish, narrowly defeated Qatari candidate for the director of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Hamad bin Abdoulaziz Al-Kawari, who had been the frontrunner throughout the week’s voting, the Agence-Presse France news agency reported.
Azoulay, 45, came from behind after six rounds of voting to defeat 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.
Azoulay, who is UNESCO’s 11th director, was named last year minister during a cabinet reshuffle. She is the daughter of Andre Azoulay, an adviser to Moroccan King Mohammed VI, and writer Katia Brami. She is a native of Morocco.
In 2014, Azoulay, 43, was named culture and communications adviser to then president Francois Hollande, after serving as a civil administrator and in leadership positions in France’s National Center of Cinema.
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 foreign ministry said in a statement reacting to the US pullout, announced Thursday from UNESCO by 2019 due to what the Department of State described as anti-Israel bias and a need to reform the organization.
The Paris-based body, which is responsible for UN efforts to educate and preserve heritage sites worldwide, delighted Palestinians in July when it declared the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank an endangered world heritage site. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained that the language of that resolution did not sufficiently acknowledge the religious attachment of Jews to Hebron.
Prior to that resolution UNESCO also passed several resolutions ignoring Jewish ties to Jerusalem, drawing Israeli officials’ fury and criticism by Western countries – including by France, which supported the resolutions during votes. Manuel Valls, who was prime minister in 2016, said the French vote on a resolution ignoring Jewish ties to Jerusalem was a “mistake.” And Emmanuel Macron, who was elected president in May, said it was an error during his campaign.
Six years ago, the United States cut off more than $80 million a year, about 22 percent of its entire budget for UNESCO, in reprisal for its acceptance of Palestine as a member, Foreign Policy reported.
The Obama administration said it had to cut funds because a 1990s-era law prohibits U.S. funding for any U.N. agencies recognizing Palestine as a state. Israel also suspended its funding for UNESCO.
As a result of U.S. funding cuts, it owes more than $500 million to UNESCO, according to Foreign Policy. The decision to withdraw from UNESCO owes partly to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s desire to stop the growing debt.