Embattled Unesco confirms French ex-culture minister Audrey Azoulay as new head

20695191PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Unesco member states on Friday approved the nomination of France's former culture minister Audrey Azoulay to head the embattled cultural agency.

The vote was 131 in favour to 19 opposed to the nomination by the agency's board last month of Azoulay, 45, who becomes Unesco's second woman director general.

The change of leadership comes at a tumultuous time for Unesco. Last month, the US and Israel announced they were quitting the agency after Washington accused it of anti-Israeli bias.


The agency's goals of promoting education and defending human rights have also been hampered in recent years by a lack of funding and disputes between member states.

The US had already cut off all contributions to Unesco's budget in 2011, after Palestine was voted a full member, depriving the agency of nearly a fifth of its budget.

Azoulay, who was culture minister under former president Francois Hollande, succeeds Irina Bokova, who was Unesco’s first woman director and whose second term expires this month. 

Azoulay narrowly defeated Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari of Qatar, also a former culture minister, in last month’s politically charged election.  Al-Kawari failed to pick up support from other Gulf states which are part of a Saudi-led coalition blockading Qatar. 

The campaign was also overshadowed by Washington’s announcement that it planned to withdraw from the Paris-based body after years of tensions over decisions seen as critical of Israel. 

In the face of the Arab divisions, France presented Azoulay, who is Jewish of Moroccan origin, as a consensus figure who could mend fences and soothe tensions with Israel. 

She also faces the daunting job of reforming the agency struggling under the weight of a bureaucracy that has become unwieldy over the seven decades since it was founded.

“The unity you have shown in this vote is a good omen for the coming period, in which we need to stand shoulder to shoulder,” Azoulay told the members on Friday after they approved her nomination.  She said she had “great faith” in Unesco, which “bears the genuine power to transform the world.” 

Azoulay said members were “clear-sighted as to the organisation’s difficulties (but) know how irreplaceable and essential it is in the face of our world’s challenges.”