Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The UNESCO election and us

Arab intellectuals have passed a signed petition to French President Macron to withdraw France’s nominee for UNESCO head. Where is the Arab press, to cover this event, asks Mohamed Salmawy

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Last Wednesday’s L’Obs (previously Le Nouvel Observateur) reported that French President Emmanuel Macron received a petition from Arab writers and intellectuals asking him to withdraw his predecessor Francois Hollande’s last-minute nomination of Audrey Azoulay for the post of director-general of UNESCO. It has been generally acknowledged that this prestigious post should go to a candidate from the Arab region this time around. The influential French newspaper described the nomination as a “provocation” to the Arabs who have enjoyed close and friendly relations with France for years.

The newspaper reprinted the full text of the petition, which was signed by around 50 prominent intellectuals and writers from all countries of the Arab world who protested the sudden action taken by the former French president. His nomination of the former minister of culture for the top UNESCO post has been denounced as a bid to reward one of Hollande’s closest aides before leaving office, just as he rewarded Ségolène Royal, his former partner and mother of his four children, whom he had appointed minister of environment and then, before leaving the Elysée Palace, nominated as France’s candidate to head the UN Development Programme, although she ultimately lost in favour of the German candidate.

L’Obs noted that the nomination of Azoulay flouted the strong bonds of friendship that have always linked France and the Arab world and failed to respect the internationally agreed on principle that a state should not head more than one major international organisation at the same time. France currently heads the IMF through the person of managing director Christine Lagarde.

The Arab intellectuals, in their statement, pointed out that the former French president, in taking that decision, sidestepped relevant decision making agencies, from the Foreign Ministry to parliament, betraying an attempt to take unfair advantage of democratic procedures by deploying France’s weight as the host country of a raft of international organisations, in order to secure directorship positions that the international community has generally agreed should be subject to the principle of rotation. By long established custom, countries that host the headquarters of international organisations refrain from engaging in such unfair competitions, which undermine the principle of democratic rotation. The Arab intellectuals’ statement also mentioned that all geographical regions in the world have already had the opportunity to head UNESCO apart from the Arab region. Europe has already headed it six times.

I, personally, delivered the petition to the French ambassador in Cairo on the eve of the recent visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Cairo, having been delegated to do so by the writers, thinkers, artists and former ministers who signed it. The French newspaper, which observed that the signatories were some of the “great names” in contemporary Arab culture, confirmed that the minister received the petition and submitted it to the French president as soon as he returned to Paris.

L’Obs described former president Hollande’s sudden nomination of Azoulay just before the nomination period had ended as a bid to “parachute” her into the post of UNESCO director-general. According to Georges Malbrunot, in an article in Le Figaro at the time when the nomination was made public, Hollande did not consult or even notify the French Foreign Ministry of his decision even though this is the authority responsible for submitting nominations to UNESCO. Malbrunot wrote that there was a general consensus within UNESCO that the director-general post should go to an Arab country this time. Last week’s L’Obs confirmed this and added that Hollande, in his nomination, not only obstructed this consensus, he chose a Jewish candidate to run against the four Arab candidates who had applied at the outset of the nomination process. Audrey Azoulay is the daughter of André Azoulay, the elderly adviser to the former Moroccan king and a member of a prominent Jewish family whose influence extends beyond Morocco to the Jewish lobby groups in France, most notably the highly influential Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) which supports the French candidate.

While in Paris last week, I had the honour of being interviewed by a representative of L’Obs for that article which quoted my remarks to the effect that UNESCO is the first arena in the global war against extremism, fanaticism and terrorism. Such aberrant behaviours begin in the mind and, accordingly, they should be confronted through the instruments of culture and education before security. This is why the presence of someone from the Arab and Islamic world at the head of UNESCO under the current circumstances will be more effective in this battle than someone from the West.

The Arab intellectuals in their petition to French President Emanuel Macron also expressed their belief that Hollande’s action was a manifestation of a relentless drive to prevent the Arabs from obtaining the senior UNESCO post under all circumstances. As they pointed out, this is not the first time a major cultural figure from the Arab world was nominated for that post. They cautioned that the current situation threatened to generate a needless confrontation between the East and the West and to aggravate the polarisation that grips the world at all political, cultural and religious levels.

“Arab culture has undeniably contributed to the progress of human civilisation. Without its cultural and scientific contributions, the Renaissance certainly would not have triumphed over the darkness and ignorance of the Middle Ages,” the petition by Arab intellectuals and artists declared. “However, today the Arab countries that produced this culture must now fight against the danger that imperils mankind everywhere: religious extremism and terrorism. To give an Arab candidate the opportunity to head the largest international cultural organisation will surely give fresh impetus to this struggle and steer us out of the cycle of the false confrontation between the East and West.”

Hollande’s nomination of Azoulay met considerable opposition among the very circles that are concerned with the UNESCO elections in France. Senator Joëlle Garriau-Maylam, a member of the French National Commission for UNESCO, issued a statement deploring what she described as an “insult” to the Arabs and a political and diplomatic “blunder”. She reiterated these positions in her interview with me at her office at the Senate building in Paris, which was the subject of this column last week. According to reports in some French newspapers, the French foreign minister himself had been totally taken by surprise at the announcement of Azoulay’s nomination only hours before the nominations period ended. Evidently, the nomination letter from the Elysee Palace had abruptly landed on his desk with instructions to sign it and send it to UNESCO immediately.

But now, after all the foregoing, I am left with one question: where are our venerable press and hallowed media when it comes to this question? Why does it seem that the French media is more concerned with this issue of importance to us than we are?

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