France’s Azoulay Wins UNESCO Director General’s Post


Paris – UNESCO’s executive board voted Friday to make a former French culture minister the UN cultural agency’s next chief for the four coming years after an unusually heated election.

UNESCO’s executive board voted 30 to 28 in favor of Audrey Azoulay against Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari.

The board’s selection of Azoulay over a Qatari candidate came the day after the United States announced that it intends to pull out of UNESCO because of its alleged anti-Israel bias.

Azoulay’s nomination was based on the request of former French President Francois Hollande, yet she received great support from President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

For this purpose, a diplomatic cell was set up to monitor the elections and provide the necessary votes to the former minister of culture, who previously worked as cultural adviser to Hollande at the Elysee Palace.

The Arab candidates dropped out of the race one after the other. The first was the Iraqi candidate, followed by Lebanon’s and finally Egypt’s, who left after losing against Azoulay in an extraordinary runoff on Friday.

Moushira Khattab of Egypt managed to secure 25 votes to Azoulay’s 31. Egypt immediately expressed its support for the French candidate.

Macron congratulated Azoulay on his twitter account, adding that France will continue to fight for education and culture in the world.

Azoulay, who is UNESCO’s 11th director, was born in Paris into a Moroccan-Jewish family.

Her father is Andre Azoulay, a banker and adviser to the Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, also served his father, the late King Hassan II. Her mother is writer Katia Brami.

Confronted with Arab divisions, France presented Azoulay as a consensus figure, who could mend fences within the organization and soothe tensions caused by recent resolutions against Israel.

“Now more than ever UNESCO needs a project… which restores confidence and overcomes political divisions,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement reacting to the US pullout.

According to diplomatic sources in Paris, Morocco supported the French candidate from the beginning and campaigned for her, especially among African countries close to it.

UNESCO: Extra Session to Break the Tie between French, Egyptian Candidates


Paris — Unlike all previous expectations, the fourth election round to assign a new director general for UNESCO carried a surprise that has never happened in the history of the UN organization.

The fourth round, which was carried out Thursday evening and was expected to be concluded with choosing the first and the second candidates, resulted in what was not taken into account. On one hand, Qatari candidate Mohammed bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari guaranteed that he will reach the last round by receiving 22 votes out of the 58 cast by members of the executive board, yet on the other hand, the French and Egyptian candidates ended up with 18 votes each.

This tie forced current Director-General Irina Bokova to announce that there will be an eliminating ballot between Egypt’s Moushira Khattab and France’s Audrey Azoulay on Friday to determine who will run against al-Kawari in a final vote on Friday.

These developments have changed the environment into dramatic, especially for the French candidate, who maintained the 18 votes she has received on Wednesday and did not benefit from the pullout of Lebanese candidate Vera El-Khoury, with four votes, and Chinese candidate Tang Qian, with five votes.

However, the Egyptian candidate succeeded in boosting her position and attracted five extra votes.

Azoulay was expected to be the first to benefit from the withdrawal of Vera El-Koury Lacoeuilhe and the Chinese candidate, and this was the theory promoted by French diplomats present in UNESCO’s headquarters on Thursday afternoon.

The French candidate was reassured more by the supporting campaign carried out by President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Nevertheless, the result of the voting was not the only surprise as the second surprise was the US announcement of its withdrawal from UNESCO.

Disclosing the US government’s decision, the state department said in a statement it would seek to “remain engaged … as a non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives, and expertise.”

It also added that the withdrawal will take effect on 31 December 2018.

The announcement by the Trump administration was followed a few hours later by news that Israel was also planning to quit the UN organization.

In a statement Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister welcomed the US move saying: “This is a brave and moral decision.”

Top Three UNESCO Candidates Maintain Position After Second Round


Paris- The ranking of the top three candidates did not change in the second round of the UNESCO elections for a new director-general held Tuesday afternoon as Qatar’s candidate for the post of Director-General of the UN organization Dr. Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari remained in the lead with 20 votes out of the total 58 votes.

The second of four rounds of voting ended with the Egyptian candidate, Moushira Khattab nestling in third place with 12 votes.Her Qatari and French rivals garnered 20 and 13 ballots respectively, a statement from the organization on Tuesday revealed. In the first round, the Qatari, French, and Egyptian candidates got respectively 19, 13, and 11 votes.

Lebanese Candidate Vera El Khoury Lacoeuilhe received three votes, and Chinese candidate Qian Tang and Pham Sanh Chau of Vietnam garnered five votes each.

Polad Bulbuloglu from Azerbaijan retreated and did not compete in the second round while two other candidates are expected to retreat today, allowing the picture to become clearer.

Tuesday’s results were unexpected for the Lebanese candidate and contradicted with her team’s expectations of getting additional votes (between two and three votes).

A representative of an Arab country told Asharq Al-Awsat that the United States and Britain voted in the first session in favor of Khoury Lacoeuilhe and not for the French candidate, which was also confirmed by French official sources.

Khattab said it was so far so good for her since she remains among the top three candidates for UNESCO’s top job.

According to her, the result would prompt Egypt into making the right steps required to pull off the ultimate victory in the run-off.

The winning candidate must obtain 30 votes, which did not occur in the first round but possible by a potential fifth round, which is to be held on Friday. The candidates who amassed the highest number of votes in the fourth round will compete in the fifth.

The new director-general of UNESCO will be named on October 13. Then, 195 members in the General Conference will be appointed in view of recommendations from UNESCO’s Executive Board.

France Stresses Commitment to ‘Celle Saint-Cloud Agreements’ during Haftar’s Visit


Paris – France is maintaining pressure on the Libyan parties to push for a political settlement, in continuation of the Celle Saint-Cloud summit in July, which brought together Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan armed forces, and Prime Minister of the National Accord Government, Fayez al-Sarraj, under the auspices of President Emmanuel Macron.

Last week, the Elysee Palace hosted technical meetings aimed at following up on recent developments in the Libyan file, according to French official sources.

On Thursday, Haftar arrived in Paris, where he met with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, to brief him on his latest talks in the Italian capital.

French diplomatic sources told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that Le Drian has stressed the need to abide by the agreements reached in Celle Saint-Cloud, namely the ceasefire and the holding of legislative and presidential elections next spring.

During the July summit, Sarraj and Haftar committed to a conditional ceasefire and to work towards holding elections under UN supervision.

Last week in New York, UN Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame underlined the primacy of the United Nations in any initiative to resolve the Libyan conflict. He noted that the multiplicity and dispersion of initiatives between Paris, Rome, and capitals of neighboring countries, would weaken the role of the UN and its envoy.

French sources stressed that the Paris diplomacy wanted to convey the same message to all parties, and believed that the circumstances today were “more appropriate” for the success of an international mediation than they were in the past.

During his trip to Italy earlier this week, Haftar met with a number of Italian political and security officials, who called on the army commander to disarm and abandon military action against the UN-backed government, and to participate in the country’s political process, according to local sources.

Macron Promises Aoun to Organize Three Conferences to Help Lebanon


Paris- French President Emmanuel Macron asserted on Monday with his guest Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who is on an official trip to Paris, that conditions were not yet suitable for the safe return of the Syrian refugees to their country, revealing contradictions in the file of the Syrian war and the fate of the refugees.

Macron, however, promised organizing three conferences to support Lebanon: A donor conference to encourage investment, a conference for the Syrian refugees and another one to aid the Lebanese Army in coordination with Italy and the UN.

French presidential sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the donor conference that Paris is planning to hold in the next few months in Beirut concerning the Syrian refugees “does not aim to push for their return to Syria or to speed it up, but rather to lessen the burdens placed on Lebanon and to discuss their needs and the means of accepting them in the hosting environments.”

For his part, reading a paper after his meeting with the French President, Aoun said: “I pointed out to Macron the need to plan the return of the Syrian refugees to their country, particularly that the most areas from where they came is now safe. In this case, we can’t wait for them to voluntarily leave Lebanon.”

The Lebanese president added that Syrian refugees “are living in a difficult situation.”

Same as in every occasion, Macron stressed that France is keen on Lebanon’s sovereignty, unity, and integrity.

During a joint press conference at the Elysee, the French president saluted the bravery of the Lebanese Army in fighting terrorism,” but added that it does not mean the end of the terrorist threats in Lebanon.

“France’s goal is to confront the dangers that undermine peace in Lebanon by strengthening the capabilities of the army so the Lebanese government can take control of the entire territory,” he said.

France’s Macron Faces his First Social Challenges


Paris – Dark clouds have started to loom over the Elysee Palace as the French president and his government have to face the people’s discontent over the labor reform law, which its opponents deemed as a “step back” and “gift” to employers.

A number of protests, rallies and strikes were staged in France on Tuesday. They were called for the by the main federal labor union and with the support of the left and student bodies.

This served as the first warning for President Emmanuel Macron’s new term.

The president has however repeatedly said that he will not waiver in his reform process.

The French are gearing up for two more days of strikes, protests and rallies over social issues.

The first is set for September 21 and the other on September 23. The second rally was called for the undisputed leader of the far left Jean-Luc Melenchon, who urged for demonstrations in Paris and major cities against the “social coup” led by Macron and his government.

The trouble back home was accompanied by the catastrophe that befell the Caribbean islands of St. Martin and St. Barts, both of which are French territories, after they suffered major destruction from powerful Hurricane Irma.

The French government has been accused of failing to anticipate the catastrophe and of dealing with its aftermath. Macron visited the islands on Tuesday and Wednesday, offering support and solidarity with struggling residents.

Macron’s popularity has taken a hit in wake of the social protests and the Irma disaster. Doubts have now started to surround his economic and social policies, which many believe benefit the upper class at the expense of the middle and lower ones.

Protesters on Tuesday said Macron’s reforms will give employers new powers to dismiss them, bypass trade unions and reduce their ability to defend their rights.

The hard-line CGT union called for strikes and organized some 180 marches against the labor changes, unveiled last month by Macron’s government.

Union leader Philippe Martinez told the crowd in Paris that reforming labor rules was a futile effort to create jobs.

“No reform which has destroyed the labor law … has reversed the unemployment trend,” Martinez said at the Place de la Bastille, the starting point of the Paris march. Such reforms don’t lead to “a job with which one can build his life on.”

The hard-line CGT union said 60,000 people participated in the Paris protest. Police said 24,000 people marched and that some 300 black-clad and hooded youths who joined late in the day pelted security forces with objects, briefly halting the event.

Macron’s labor decrees are the first step in what he hopes will be deep economic changes. The decrees are to be finalized this month and ratified by year’s end.

Critics accuse the government of being undemocratic for using a special method to push the measures through parliament.

Companies argue that existing rules prevent them from hiring and contribute to France’s high unemployment rate, currently around 10 percent.

The protests come amid anger at a comment last week by Macron suggesting that opponents of labor reform are “lazy.”

Government spokesman Christophe Castaner said on RTL radio Tuesday that the president didn’t mean workers themselves but politicians who failed to update French labor rules for a globalized age.

Some unions refused to join the protests, preferring to negotiate with the government over upcoming changes to unemployment and retirement rules instead of taking their grievances to the street.

France Appoints Envoy to Mediate in Qatari Crisis


Paris- France appointed Bertrand Besancenot, diplomatic adviser to the government, as a special envoy to see how Paris could support mediation efforts in the rift between Qatar and several of its neighbors, a step that reflects France’s wish to be supportive of the Kuwaiti mediation to resolve this crisis.

Diplomatic sources stated to Asharq Al-Awsat that assigning ambassador Bertrand Besancenot is an initiative launched by France President Emanuel Macron who is in constant contact with the region’s leaders.

Macron expressed several times his country’s wish to contribute in finding possible outcomes to reduce the tension and return to normal ties – this message was delivered by France’s Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian during his tours in the region.

Sources added that naming Besancenot for this mission attributes to his thorough knowledge of the region where he was France’s ambassador to Doha for several years and to Riyadh for nine years. Between these two periods, he was a diplomatic adviser for five years to foreign Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

Besancenot has built personal relations in Riyadh and Doha along with a thorough knowledge in the Gulf’s interior – this would assist him to deal with the current crisis as a friend who is capable of holding talks with all parties out of keenness to achieve reconciliation and preservation of joint Gulf interest.

France refuses to talk about a French mediation, affirming that there is only one official mediation: the Kuwaiti.

The ambassador is willing to carry out a visit to the region, soon, after the UN General Assembly concludes its monthly affairs since Gulf officials will be in New York for annual meetings.

Security, Independence, Bolstering Power at Core of Macron’s French Foreign Policy


Paris – In his first speech on France’s foreign policy, President Emmanual Macron paved the comprehensive and complete path of the diplomacy that Paris will follow over the next five years.

During his first annual address to France’s ambassadors, he covered world crises, ranging from the Middle East to North Korea, Africa and Venezuela and the fate of the European Union.

The foreign policy will be based on the France’s security and independence and various forms of influence throughout the world.

Macron indirectly implied that, since his election to office, France has restored its role in the world and its voice is once again being heard. He was making an indirect reference to his “successful” meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump and his initiative that brought together the rival forces in Libya.

The French leader declared that Paris wants to be the “bearer of solutions and initiatives upon the eruption of new crises.”

In addition, he revealed that a “work group” on Syria will meet after a few days in New York. He also told the ambassadors that Paris will host in early 2018 a conference on drying up terrorism financing and that he will pay a visit to the Middle East in spring of the same year.

Seeing as France and the French people top Macron’s concerns, terrorism took up most his speech that lasted over an hour. He stressed the need to combat terror that has been plaguing France since early 2015 and which has left 239 people dead and hundreds injured.

“Combating Islamist terrorism is at the top of our foreign policy priorities,” he stated, while acknowledging that labeling this terrorism as “Islamist” will incite criticism. He was therefore quick to clarify that he distinguishes between Islam and “Islamist” terrorism, rejecting that the millions of Muslims in Europe be blamed for this violence.

Echoing the words of his predecessor Francois Hollande, Macron declared ISIS as “the enemy of France.” He also made a link between destroying ISIS and terrorism to finding comprehensive political solutions in each of Syria and Iraq.

“Restoring peace and stability in Iraq and Syria are of vital importance to France,” he declared. To that end, he called for working towards a stage of political transition in both of the war-torn countries.

One of the ways to defeat “Islamist” terrorism lies in drying up its financing, explained the French president. He therefore stressed that any side funding terror should not be overlooked.

Macron avoided delving into the details of the Gulf crisis between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt on the other. He also refused to view the conflicts in the region from a “Sunni-Shi’ite” perspective. The strength of French diplomacy lies in its ability to speak to all sides in order “to bring together the elements of stability and effectively combat all forms of terror financing.”

In addition, the French leader refused to follow the United States’ campaign to abandon the Iranian nuclear deal, saying that he is committed to its implementation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

On Syria, Macron had in May spoken of a French “initiative” on the war-torn country that calls for forming a “contact group” comprised of the major powers and influential regional players. On Tuesday, he said that this group will become “active” in September and that it will meet on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly. He did not specify whether Syria will be represented by the regime or the opposition at the meeting.

French diplomatic sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that one of the difficulties Paris faced in coming up with the initiative was the mounting tensions between Tehran and the American administration, which refuses to sit at the same table with Iranian officials.

Macron said that it was “a given” that a state of law will once again be formed in Syria, which is what France and Europe are working towards. Furthermore, he added that this should be accompanied with the “trial of figures responsible for the crimes committed there, specifically its leaders.” This marks the first time that the new French president makes such a demand, which is significant since he had refrained in the past from calling for the ouster of regime head Bashar al-Assad.

On Lebanon, Macron said that Paris is “very aware” of the special ties it enjoys with Beirut, noting that the country is “bravely” confronting a critical situation.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun is scheduled to visit Paris in late September, while Prime Minister Saad Hariri is set to make a similar visit in the upcoming days.

Turning to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Macron expressed his commitment to the two-state solution and his country’s efforts to reaching that goal. He revealed that he will visit each of Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories in spring 2018.

As for Libya, the French president described it as a “safe haven for terrorists.” He also highlighted the agreement that he was able to mediate between rival leaders Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the Paris suburb of Saint Cloud on July 25.

European-African Summit Discusses Migration Crisis


Paris- The Elysee Palace hosted on Monday leaders of four European countries – France, Germany, Italy and Spain – and three African countries – Chad, Niger and Libya – to discuss ways to curb the flow of illegal migration.

The Paris meeting aims to “reaffirm Europe’s support for Chad, Niger and Libya on controlling the flow of migrants,” the French presidency said.

Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said in a joint statement with his counterparts from Chad, Niger, Mali and Libya on Monday that the summit “could be the beginning of a new relationship between Europe and Africa.”

The meeting was called by French President Macron, who put forward a proposal he had mentioned last month to establish European screening centers to examine asylum applications in Niger, Chad and Libya. But the young French president’s proposal has received little response.

Europeans hoped to “replicate” their experience with Turkey to stop the flow of Syrian migrants across Greece, including the Balkan corridor and the western and northern European countries.

Therefore, the main purpose of the summit was to find ways to “slow down” the migration stream through a screening process on the African side, to differentiate between refugees entitled to come to Europe and the so-called “economic migrants”, who are undesired in the Old Continent.

Macron proposed last month to set up “hotspots” in Libya, Niger and Chad, where migrants would be screened for their asylum claims before reaching Europe.

However, his proposal was met with little enthusiasm by European and African leaders alike. The most negative response came from Chad Foreign Minister Hussein Ibrahim Taha, who openly stated that his country opposed the French proposal “because it will attract thousands of migrants to our country, and we do not have the capacity to receive them.”

A West African official at the meeting told Reuters: “The hotspots announcement was nonsense and neither Chad nor Niger were consulted beforehand.”

“Macron is trying to make up for that mistake. It will be a meeting on the hotspots and migration in general, but we don’t expect much to come from it,” the official added.

Human rights organizations have also expressed opposition to the proposal, noting that its implementation effectively means revoking the internationally recognized right of immigration. But Elysee sources described the summit “an opportunity to reaffirm Europe’s support” for the three African countries in order to enable them to “control” the migratory streams from and across their territories.

Nearly 120,000 migrants, including refugees, have entered Europe by sea so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration quoted by Reuters. More than 2,400 have drowned while making the dangerous journey, often without enough food or water in overcrowded dinghies run by people smugglers, the agency added.

France Prepares for Post-ISIS Phase in Iraq

Iraqi forces advance through Tal Afar's Al-Wahda district during an operation to retake the city from the ISIS group on August 24, 2017, Iraq

Paris- French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defense Minister Florence Parly arrived in Baghdad on Saturday before heading to Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, in the framework of the French efforts to prepare for the post-ISIS phase, Iraqi military sources said.

At a joint press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibarhim al-Jaafari, Le Drian uncovered France’s intentions in Iraq by saying: “We are present in war and we will be present in peace.”

Le Drian’s statement reveals that from one part, France wishes to contribute to the national reconciliation efforts in Iraq, but also to play a role in the reconstruction efforts estimated at between $700 and $1000 billion.

According to a foreign ministry statement, France will grant a 430 million euro loan to Iraq before the end of the year.

A French source close to the matter told Asharq Al-Awsat that Paris wants to reap the political, economic and financial fruits of what it cultivated in Iraq in the past three years, adding that its target is to build “long-term relations” with Baghdad at all levels.

Also, Paris sees that Iraq currently faces three main political challenges: “The Kurdish upcoming referendum and its repercussions at the regional and internal levels, the government’s capacity to implement a reconciliatory policy that could gather all elements of the Iraqi society, and finally an agreement on a structure to administer Mosul and Nineveh, both characterized by their religious diversity.”

According to Paris, the current blazing file is certainly the Kurdistan Region’s upcoming referendum on independence, scheduled for Sept. 25.

Similar to other regional and international parties, France sees in this referendum an “imminent threat,” and considers itself a “friend of the Kurds” since the 1990’s and of being capable to influence them.

However, Paris “supports the Kurdish rights of self-administration but in the framework of the current Iraqi Constitution.”