Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

UNESCO, Paris and the Arabs

The struggle around the post of UNESCO director-general continues, but the Arabs are not without allies, writes Mohamed Salmawy

It was in the French Senate building, situated in one of Paris’ loveliest gardens — Le Jardin du Luxembourg — that I met with Senator Joëlle Garriau-Maylam, the first major politician to speak out against former president François Hollande’s decision to nominate French Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay for the post of director-general of UNESCO. In an official statement, Senator Garriau-Maylam called the decision an “insult” to the Arabs who, according to the general understanding, have the right to the top UNESCO post this time around.

The Parisian skies were clear and sunny after a spell of cloudy weather with some light rainfall, which is unusual for this time of year. As I passed the verdant Luxembourg gardens I resisted the temptation to stroll through them because of my appointment with the senator. However, I mentally recounted their history which dates back to 1612 when Marie de Medici, the wife of King Henry IV of France, purchased this land in order to build a new residence, known as the Luxembourg Palace. After the French Revolution, ownership reverted to the state and it became public property. In 1879, during the Third Republic, the palace became the seat of the French Senate and the gardens with their famous pond were opened to the public.

Joëlle Garriau-Maylam received me in her office. The windows were fully open, filling the room with daylight. I presented her a French edition of my novel, Butterfly Wings, which she told me she had heard much about but had never had the opportunity to read. I wrote a dedication to her in which I expressed my esteem for her principled stance in defence of the Arabs’ right to the senior UNESCO post this year. After she read it, she immediately turned to the subject at hand.

“Believe me, I was actually defending France and its right to forge positions based on moral foundations,” she said. “It had been previously acknowledged that it was now the Arabs’ turn to fill the director-general post of UNESCO. Europe held that office six times and Latin America and Asia also had their turns. However, the Arabs never had the opportunity, not even once since the organisation was established around three-quarters of a century ago.”

The senator, who was born in Algeria in 1955, continued: “The Arabs have a long and venerable history in literature and culture and Egypt was among the states that founded UNESCO. How can we bring ourselves to keep it from directing the organisation it helped establish? True, there is no written agreement that the forthcoming term belongs to the Arabs. However, have French political ethics sunk so low that other countries have to get France’s signature on any understanding they reach with it or else the French president will renege on the understanding and personally nominate someone to compete with the candidate from the countries that have a right to the post?”

She added: “When France makes a promise it should keep it.”

Senator Garriau-Maylam (she added her British husband’s last name — Maylam — to hers when she married him in 1985) related that she had met some of the nine candidates for the UNESCO general-director post and found the Egyptian candidate, Mushira Khattab, the best. She also felt that Khattab’s election would serve a number of purposes.

“She is an enlightened, culturally sophisticated woman which will rectify the stereotypical image of the Arab woman. Her presence in that post, as someone coming from the Arab world, will serve the fight against terrorism and extremism more than if the post were filled by a European. Also, in the course of my conversation with her, I found that she was thoroughly familiar with all the issues of concern to UNESCO and that she had formulated opinions and perceptions on how to handle each of them. How can we overlook all that and thrust a French candidate into that post? In taking that step, Hollande committed a moral mistake and a diplomatic blunder at the same time.”

I told the senator that, since coming to Paris, I had met a number of journalists and found that the prevalent opinion among them was that the former French president wanted to reward his closest aides before leaving the Élysée Palace by inserting them, or in their term “lodging” them, in various offices instead of leaving them to fend for themselves, even if this meant elbowing aside others who were better qualified. As an example, some journalists cited Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former partner and mother of his four children, whom he had appointed minister of environment and then, before leaving office, he nominated her as France’s candidate to head the UN Development Programme, although she lost in favour of the German candidate. Another example they cited was his close friend Anne Hidalgo whom the government advanced as mayor of Paris.

I then said, “But to us, in the Arab world, the problem appears much deeper. This is not the first time that the West has moved to prevent an Arab candidate from heading UNESCO. It occurred with Ismail Serageldin, ostensibly on the grounds that he had not been officially nominated, and it occurred again with Farouk Hosni, because of some remarks that were taken out of context and for which he apologised anyway. Today, the phenomenon is repeating itself with Khattab. As the Jewish circles that stood in the way of Arab nominations in the past could find nothing against her, the country where UNESCO is based has stepped to use its full weight to halt her progress. It is as though there were an objection, in principle, to any Arab serving as the head of UNESCO. This is why the stance you have taken against the French nomination is so important, especially given that you are not only a senator but also a member of the French National Commission for UNESCO.”

“And it was precisely in that capacity that I voiced my objection,” Garriau-Maylam said. “As a general rule, the host country keeps itself out of the competition for the senior posts of the international organisations based in their territory.”

Garriau-Maylam was first elected to the senate in 2004 as a representative for French citizens residing abroad. She was elected to a second seven-year term in 2011. My respect for her increased when I learned that she declared her position on the UNESCO issue at a time when she was preparing to run for a third term in the parliamentary elections due to be held in early 2018. Influential Jewish circles, which become increasingly active during election season, were not pleased with her outspoken stance against the French candidate for UNESCO. Audrey Azoulay is the daughter of André Azoulay, the elderly advisor to Moroccan King Mohamed VI and a member of a prominent Jewish family whose influence extends beyond Morocco to the circles of Jewish influence in France.

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