Will UNESCO Be Faithful to Its Values?

Co-authored by Claude Lanzmann

The election of the Director General of UNESCO has entered its last phase. And the designation of the Egyptian Farouk Hosni, thought to be a given just a few weeks ago, seems to be less assured than previously believed. Three rounds of voting haven't been enough to procure him the crushing majority that his supporters promised.

We will not rehash the unacceptable declarations that we have already rehearsed (May 22 in Le Monde) where this man who has been minister of culture for two decades promised to burn with his own hands any book written in Hebrew that could have possibly infiltrated the stacks of the Alexandria Library. Neither will we once again bring up the fact that this man who presents himself as a candidate of dialogue and peace is, in his country, a partisan of the most heated and constant hostility to any form of normalization between Israel and its neighbors.

What is new, on the other hand, are the warnings of non-governmental organizations that underscore the paradox of electing to this post -- the supposed guarantor of the values of liberty of expression in the world -- the minister of a country that ranked, during his reign, 146th out of 173 for freedom of the press on the Reporters without Borders (dis)honor roll. These are all the voices of the artists and intellectuals who, even from within Egypt, implore us to understand that this supposed "rampart" against radical Islamism has acted, for the past 22 years, as an indefatigable ally of the fanatics, ratifying their decisions, sometimes even furthering their causes -- acting, in any case, as an implacable censor of free thought and culture.

The new element is that, finally, these weeks of muffled debate, as well as the elimination rounds of the initial votes, have seen two other candidacies break free which, at the very least, are worthy of not being sullied by the same possibilities of suspicion: that of the Bulgarian Irina Bokova, her country's ambassador to France and, 20 years ago, a stakeholder in the democratic transition process in Sofia; and that of the Ecuadorean Ivonne Baki, whose election would mean, at least as much as that of Mr. Hosni, an homage paid to the South in its dialogue, more necessary than ever, with the North.

The 58 voters who today or tomorrow will decide the finalists will have a choice between two honorable candidates and a third. They will have to decide between two women with nothing to disqualify them and a man whose entire past speaks against the institution's ideals but whom we are asked to bet on in the hope that his vague and hasty regrets mark a miraculous change.

The choice, the real choice, will be between the dealings of a realpolitik that claims to be the friend of Egyptian culture even as it in reality only cares to please an autocrat and, on the contrary, faithfulness to those principles which are UNESCO's but to which UNESCO itself has too often been unfaithful and risked trampling those very principles.

Need it be added that the election of a woman to this position for the first time would in itself send a beautiful message? It's almost exactly 60 years since Simone de Beauvoir declared in The Second Sex, "The free woman is just in the process of being born."