Former French minister becomes first Jewish head of UNESCO

Former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay has been elected as UNESCO’s next Director-General.

The US announcement this week that it is quitting UNESCO rocked the multi-day election and heightened concerns about the agency’s funding and future direction.

Azoulay, who is Jewish, 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.

On Thursday, the US and Israel said they planned to pull out of the Paris-based organisation over its perceived anti-Israel bias.

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.

In a short address, she also thanked “the executive board member states that gave me their trust” – in her surprise 30-28 vote win on Friday over Qatari candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari.

The new director, who was brought up by a Moroccan Jewish family from Essaouira, 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.

Azoulay had started the week’s voting with much less support but built up backing as other candidates dropped out and won a runoff earlier on Friday against Egypt’s candidate.

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