UNESCO gets the director it deserves
The election of former French Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay as director-general of UNESCO over Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, the former minister of culture and member of the royal family of Qatar, came after three months of the kind of horse trading the world has come to expect for such senior international posts.
The result came as a surprise to many as Azoulay had only thrown her hat into the ring last March, strongly encouraged by then French President François Hollande.
Her election marks the triumph of competence and cultural diversity at a time when wounded identities are being paraded throughout the world and rejection of the “other” is encouraging the rise of populist parties riding on a wave of anti-Islamism throughout Europe. That a woman of 45 whose background is Jewish and whose family hails from Morocco should be the second French person to be elected in UNESCO’s history does credit to the UN organisation and to its host country, France.
The irony of Israel and the United States leaving UNESCO just when a Jewish woman is elected the group’s leader will be lost on no one.
After growing up in Paris in a much-politicised family, Azoulay studied at Sciences Po Paris, the Ecole nationale d’administration, the springboard of the senior French civil service, and the University of Lancaster. She joined the National Centre for Cinema in Paris and, in 2014, was called to Élysée Palace to become Hollande’s adviser on cultural affairs. In 2016 she was appointed minister of culture.
She faces a tough challenge as the United States, which cast its vote against her and provides 20% of the UNESCO budget, and Israel leave the organisation.
The attitude of US President Donald Trump is in line with the general US wish to retreat from the international organisations. Since the end of the second world war, US involvement has underpinned international order and relative peace among nations. “UNESCO must enter the 21st century and is facing a crucial few years,” Azoulay said, indicating she knows how tough her new job is.
Coming from a regime that is anything but democratic and showers money on the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide, Kawari, 69, was supported by most Arab countries. He was widely expected to win after the withdrawal of the Egyptian candidate, former Minister of Culture Moushira Khattab, whom most Africans favoured.
Fate, however, and good lobbying made the dice roll in a way few had anticipated. To have a new director who is French of Moroccan origin and a fluent Arabic speaker suggests that the dialogue of civilisations still has bite.
Azoulay is the daughter of a senior adviser to the king of Morocco and a mother who is a writer. Azoulay’s father, André, spent 22 years, until 1991, at Paribas where he rose to be executive vice-president and covered the bank’s public affairs department. He returned to Morocco to advise King Hassan II on economic affairs at a time of significant economic and financial reforms in the kingdom. He remains an adviser to King Mohammed VI.
Throughout his career, André Azoulay was involved in attempts to bring about the reconciliation between Jews and Arabs and encourage the idea of a two-state solution in the Palestinian territories, an issue on which King Hassan II was particularly active. André Azoulay is passionate when he talks of relations between the world of Islam and the West — it is his lifelong quest.
His wife, Katia, and he have transmitted to their daughter (one of three) Audrey a passion for debate that is characteristic of so many enlightened Jewish families. It does not come as a surprise that he sits on the boards of several economic and financial but also political institutions such as the Institut Pierre Mendès France and YALA (Young Arab Leaders for Peace). He is a member of the Royal Academy of Spain.
Katia and André Azoulay’s other abiding love is for Essaouira, where they were born and to whose history they have devoted two books. They have helped revive this sleepy port, which boasts a 16th-century Portuguese fort, built on a grid pattern by a French engineer in the 18th century, by initiating several music festivals every year, ranging from classical to lyrical. The Gnaoua World Music Festival attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every summer and the Printemps Musical des Alizés brings to Essaouira the rich Judeo- Muslim repertoire of the courts of Spain and North Africa of the Al-Andalus.
This attempt to keep alive and perform a common heritage and legacy of poetry and music in a region suffused with Sufi Islam and boasting a very old Jewish community by inviting on to the same stage Muslims, Jews and Roma may seem an attempt to defy gravity in a world torn by conflicts of religion, tribe and identity. The new director of UNESCO is well-equipped to meeting such a challenge head-on. The wider world can only wish her well