Audrey Azoulay, the Second Woman at the Head of the UNESCO


Audrey Azoulay, who succeeds to Irina Gueorguieva Bokova at the head of the UNESCO. Picture by Didier Plowly CC-BY-3.0

Mrs Audrey Azoulay, previously France's Minister of Culture, has been nominated by the 58 state members of the Organisation Executive Board to represent the 195 members of the UNESCO.

She has won the title after five voting rounds, with 30 votes in her favor against 28 votes for her opponent Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al Kawari, from Qatar. Mrs Azoulay was only be officially elected on the 10th November 2017, with the approval of the 195 State members during the general conference.

The succession of a woman to another at the head of one of the biggest United Nations agencies is a first. This is exactly what happened at the United Nations for the Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), where Ms Audrey Azoulay, from France, replaced Ms Gueorguieva Bokova, from Bulgaria, who has just completed her second mandate as the Director-General. A fact that deserves to be acknowledged.

Out of the 8 candidates, the ex-French Minister of Culture was the youngest, and logically the candidate with the least amount of experience in working with international organisations or in diplomacy in her country. In addition to that, having a woman as her predecessor made her victory more challenging.

Amina Benlhasen traced back her academic and professional background for the Moroccan news site MAP. She presents it like below :

A son actif, Audrey Azoulay peut se prévaloir d’un pedigree “diversité” en or. Tout le monde n’a pas la chance d’avoir une grand-mère marocaine séfarade, un père conseiller du Roi du Maroc et une mère écrivaine qui, vivant entre Paris et Rabat, ont su créer un pont entre les deux rives de la Méditerranée, écrit également d’elle le “Journal du Dimanche”.

De par sa diversité, la richesse de son vécu et sa foi en les valeurs de dialogue et de multiculturalité dans lesquelles elle a puisée depuis sa tendre enfance, Audrey Azoulay réunit, à ne pas en douter, toutes les qualités qui lui permettront durant son mandat, comme elle s’y est engagée, de redonner toute sa place à l’UNESCO et de restaurer la confiance en cette institution et de placer l’éducation et la Culture au  coeur de la gouvernance mondiale.

Audrey Azoulay has a golden “diversity” pedigree for her assets. Not everyone is lucky to have a Sephardi Moroccan grandmother, a King of Morocco counselor as a father and a writer as a mother. All of whom, living between Paris and Rabat, managed to create a bridge between the two Mediterranean shores, writes the “Sunday News” about Azoulay.

By her diversity, rich background and her faith in values she has been immersed in since her childhood such as dialogue and multiculturalism, Audrey has with no doubt all the qualities that will allow her like has she promised to, reinstate the UNESCO, reestablish confidence in this institution and place education and Culture at the heart of the global governance during her mandate.

But getting there was not easy for Azoulay. First of all, as Anissa Hégly highlights it on, by endorsing Azoulay's candidacy, the ex-French President François Hollande left a diplomatic faux pas as heritage to his successor, breaking a strict law ruling that a citizen originating from the location of one of the international organisation headquarters cannot be nominated at the highest level. She also reveals that:

L’annonce de la candidature d’Audrey Azoulay a fait l’effet d’une petite bombe dans les milieux feutrés de la Diplomatie et de la Culture. Une situation gênante pour le Quai d’Orsay, car il était à peu près entendu depuis de nombreuses années dans les différentes chancelleries que le prochain Secrétaire général de l’organisation devait être issu d’un pays arabe. En effet, durant ses 72 ans d’existence, l’UNESCO a vu à sa tête 10 présidents, dont 7 venaient d’Europe ou d’Amérique du Nord. Il faut savoir que les pays membres de l’UNESCO sont divisés en six groupes, chacun représentant une zone culturelle et géographique donnée. Le premier groupe auquel appartient la France a obtenu six fois le poste de Directeur général, et chaque autre groupe une fois, à l’exception… des pays arabes…

Un impair diplomatique d’autant plus grave qu’en voulant trouver un parachutage en or pour son ancienne ministre, François Hollande a aussi brisé une règle tacite des organisations internationales : un pays où siège l’une de ces institutions ne propose pas de candidat à sa tête. Une forme de courtoisie pour assurer une neutralité maximale et pour éviter qu’un Suisse siège à l’OMC, un Italien à la FAO… ou un Français à l’UNESCO. Les ennuis s’accumulent pour les fonctionnaires du Quai d’Orsay, contraints de devoir défendre une candidature qui horripile la plupart de nos partenaires.

The news of Audrey Azoulay's candidacy dropped a little bombshell in the hush world of Diplomacy and Culture. It was a bit of an embarrassment for the Quai d’Orsay, because all of the different chancelleries had more or less agreed since many years that the next general Secretary of the organisation should originate from an Arabic country. Indeed, during its 72 years of existence, the UNESCO has seen at its head 10 presidents, and 7 of them were from Europe or North America. It should be noted that the state members of the UNESCO are divided into 6 groups, each representing a specific cultural and geographical zone. The first group to which France belongs has been attributed the role of Director-General 6 times already, as well as once for every other group, at the exception of…Arabic countries…

A diplomatic faux pas, even more serious considering that by trying to bring a golden handshake to his ex-minister, François Hollande also broke a strict rule of the international organisations: a country where the headquarter of one of these institutions is based at does not nominate a head candidate. A courtesy policy to ensure maximum neutrality and to avoid a Swiss heading the OMC, an Italian heading the FAO… or a French heading the UNESCO. The troubles keep piling up for the Quai d’Orsay officials, obliged to defend a candidacy exasperating most of our partners.

This victory was surprising according to several witnesses, and was only possible because of the disagreement between the Arabic states group, due to the difficult diplomatic relationship of Qatar with its neighbors. Among the 58 members of the Executive Board of the organisation, there are seven representatives of Arabic countries: Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Oman and Sudan. Khaled Elraz explains it for

Lors de l’ultime tour d’un scrutin très serré entamé lundi…Audrey Azoulay a reçu le soutien de l’Egypte, dont la candidate avait été éliminée sur la dernière ligne droite, contre le candidat du Qatar, qui faisait la course en tête depuis le début. Mais le Qatar était loin de faire l’unanimité du monde arabe, d’autant plus que l’Arabie saoudite, les Emirats arabes unis, Bahreïn et l’Egypte ont rompu leurs relations diplomatiques avec lui en juin dernier. La candidate française d’origine marocaine, fille d’Essaouira, était idéalement désignée pour battre un candidat qatari, en rupture de ban dans le monde arabe.

La bataille a cependant été âpre pour prendre le leadership d’une organisation déjà fragilisée par ses dissensions et ses difficultés économiques, et à laquelle les Etats-Unis et Israël avaient porté “un coup dur” avec l’annonce jeudi de leur départ, selon la  directrice générale sortante de l’organisation, la Bulgare Irina Bokova…

Un problème auquel Audrey Azoulay saura sans nul doute répondre : car elle est issue d’une famille marocaine, issue d’une terre dont le souverain musulman est commandeur des croyants, musulmans aussi bien que juifs.

During the very tight final round on Monday…Azoulay received Egypt's support, whose candidate had been eliminated during the final stretch by Qatar's one, leading the way since the start. But Qatar was far from getting the approval of the Arab world, considering that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt had broken their diplomatic relationships with it last June. The French candidate, originally Moroccan and children of Essaouira, was almost strategically positioned to beat a Qatari candidate, as if the Arab world was short of bans.

Nevertheless, taking leadership of a weakened organisation was a bitter fight. In addition to the announcement of the United States and Israel's departure on that week, which was “a real blow”, the organisation was already weakened by its dissensions and economic difficulties, according to the ex-Director-General, the Bulgarian Irina Bokova…

An issue to which Azoulay will surely know how to respond to: because of her Moroccan background, a land where the Muslim sovereign is the commander all the believers, Muslim or Jewish.

Furthermore, the Simon Wiesenthal Center had condemned the Qatari Ambassador Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari on the eve of the election for his behavior. On the online arts and culture website WUKALI, Pierre-Alain Lévy wonders :

Quelle est donc la stratégie du Quatar, et quelle mouche a piqué leurs dirigeants pour avoir désigné comme candidat au poste de directeur-général de l’Unesco monsieur al-Kawari ? Organisation des Nations-Unies pour l’éducation, la science et la culture, tout est dit, pourquoi alors un tel candidat, Le Centre Simon Wiesenthal avait pourtant à plusieurs reprises alerté l’opinion sur les propos inquiétants de l’Ambassadeur al-Kawari, notamment ses propos furieusement antisémites tenus lors du salon du Livre de Doha et sur ses écrits. On aurait pu souhaiter que pour une telle responsabilité à ce poste éminent Doha fût plus circonspect sur ses choix… Par ailleurs dans les semaines qui précédèrent le vote, le Quatar avait multiplié les pressions et les invitations généreuses auprès de délégués, ce qui n’avait pas manqué de susciter pour le moins l’irritation de certains. En outre la stratégie diplomatique du Quatar manque (en termes diplomatiques) de lisibilité.

What is really Qatar's strategy, and one wonders what got into their leaders for nominating al-Kawari as the director-general of the Unesco? United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the name is clear, so why this particular candidate? Yet, the Simon Wiesenthal Center had alerted the public about the worrying comments of the Ambassador al-Kawari, in particular during the Doha Book trade show, where he made some furious anti-Semitic statements, but also through his writings. One could have wished for a more conscious choice made by Doha in respect to the responsibility that the role requires… Furthermore, during the weeks preceding the vote, Qatar had reinforced its pressure and generous invitations among the representatives, much to the irritation of some. Basically, Qatar's diplomatic strategy is lacking (in a diplomatic way) transparency.

Despite of this controversial candidacy and election, we can only wish good luck to Mrs Audrey Azoulay, who succeeds to another woman at the head of one the United Nations specialised major institutions, and that she may regain the prestige of this important institution, which utility is undeniable.

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