UNESCO’s executive board has chosen former French Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay to be the UN cultural agency’s next leader over a Qatari candidate in an unusually heated race overshadowed by Mideast tensions. The US announcement this week that it’s quitting UNESCO rocked the multi-day election and heightened concerns about the agency’s funding and future direction.
Azoulay succeeds outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, whose eight-year term was marred by financial woes and criticism over Palestine’s inclusion as a member. The 45-year-old took the stage to chants of “Audrey! Audrey!” following her victory and said the response to UNESCO’s problems was to reform the agency, not to walk away an understated rebuke of the US and Israel.
UNESCO’s general assembly will have to sign off next month on the executive board’s leadership pick, but it’s seen as a formality. The new director will set priorities for the organisation best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions. The agency also works to improve education for girls, promote an understanding of the Holocaust’s horrors, defend media freedom and coordinate science about climate change.