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Even on a grey snowy morning in February, Audrey Azoulay’s Parisian apartment is bright. The recently appointed director-general of Unesco, the UN world heritage agency, greets me in a darkened hall and leads me through to the sitting room. The winter light streams in through the enormous windows, two storeys high.

The first thing you notice are the plants. A baobab tree native to Africa (“It’s not in shape because it’s winter but the baobab is huge during the summer,” says Azoulay) and a fern tree from Vanuatu, an island in the Pacific, which climbs up the side of a bookshelf that stretches all the way to the ceiling.

The apartment where Azoulay, 45, lives with her husband and two children has been her home for the past 14 years, but she has known the surrounding area of Montparnasse as home for even longer. Nestled behind Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Paris’s Left Bank, Montparnasse became famous in the 1920s and 1930s as the heart of the city’s intellectual and artistic life. While the impoverished artists have long moved out, “it has remained a neighbourhood of many restaurants, cinemas, cafés and bookstores”, says Azoulay. “It’s very alive.”

It seems only fitting that Azoulay, a former minister of culture in France, would be living in what is a former artist’s studio (that of Henri Hayden, a prominent Polish Cubist painter) in the heart of theatreland, having spent her entire career in the world of culture and public service. We are sitting in the living room, where the natural spirit embodied in the plants is also captured in a wooden sculpture from Papua New Guinea, and in the furniture, notably a large, bean-shaped wooden table, a pair of armchairs and a wood and brass tea trolley, all by Brazilian designer Jorge Zalszupin.

Born in Paris to a Moroccan Jewish family from Essaouira, Azoulay grew up in Paris, but has strong links with Morocco and its culture. Her father is an adviser to King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

A brightly coloured woven Moroccan textile hangs above the piano. A projector on the coffee table and a screen underneath the bookshelf nod to the decade that she spent working at France’s National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image. Azoulay says she rarely watches television but that the family likes to gather around the projector screen to rediscover old films by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, or watch musical comedies.

A graduate of France’s Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the country’s training ground for the political elite, Azoulay’s path into the French government began when she was called on in 2014 to advise then socialist president François Hollande on cultural affairs. He then appointed her Minister of Culture in 2016 to protect and promote France’s prized cultural industries.

Azoulay’s year in government is characterised by the work she did reforming France’s unemployment benefits for actors, performers, musicians and technicians. “It is one of the pillars of creation in France and we managed to find an agreement that allowed us to stabilise the regime,” she says. “I’m very proud of that.”

Other initiatives she led sought to expand the access to culture, such as La Nuit de la Lecture, the “night of reading”, when thousands of libraries, bookstores and museums in France opened their doors all night, and the first “Micro-Folie”, a digital culture project aimed at children and young people and located in one of Paris’s poorest suburbs.

Azoulay says she feels passionate about the initiatives to safeguard cultural heritage in conflict zones. “It was part of an initiative of Hollande at a time when you were seeing recurrent, systematic, deliberate destruction of cultural symbols,” she says, “especially in Iraq and Syria, areas that are all about pre-Islamic history, which is an extremely rich period of history. The symbols were deliberately destroyed and attacked because they represented a diversity and a story that was not the one that the terrorists or the movements of Daesh wanted to tell.”

In March 2017, France and Saudi Arabia pledged $75m for the protection of cultural heritage sites threatened by conflicts and terrorism. France was also one of the countries that worked with Unesco to push a resolution through the UN Security Council that says that the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites may amount to war crimes.

It is in this same vein that last week Azoulay unveiled her most ambitious project since she was named director-general of Unesco in November: an initiative to rebuild the heritage and revitalise the educational and cultural institutions of Mosul, working closely with the Iraqi government and the war-torn country’s people. “Education and culture are the forces of unity and reconciliation,” says Azoulay. “It is through education and culture that Iraqis can take back their destiny and become the actors of the renewal of their country.”

Yet Unesco itself is in need of renewal. The institution was created by 37 nations in 1945, following the end of the second world war, as a human rights organisation promoting education, science and cultural causes as a way of contributing to world peace. It is perhaps best known for its role in designating World Heritage Sites, such as the Galápagos Islands and the Yellowstone National Park.

In recent years, however, Unesco has been hampered by political tension and infighting among its member states, and a lack of money. Throughout the selection process for its new director-general, there was intense lobbying by Arab countries, which have long wanted to lead the organisation, which has been headed by westerners since its founding. Azoulay, who is only the second woman to lead the organisation, was put forward as a candidate by the French government and finally prevailed.

Her appointment, though, was overshadowed by an announcement the day before by the Trump administration that the US would leave Unesco, citing continuing perceived anti-Israel bias and mounting arrears. The US had already cut its Unesco funding in 2011 after Palestine was approved for full membership, depriving the body of about a fifth of its budget.

So how does Azoulay plan to get Unesco back on track during her four-year term? “For all its challenges I think the mandate of Unesco remains absolutely relevant,” she says. Her first priority is to “restore the trust between the organisation and the member states” and avoid any politicisation of issues so that Unesco can focus on its mandate.

The second priority, adds Azoulay, “is the adaptation of our organisation and our actions to the challenges of today”, citing ecological concerns, the transition to a digital economy, the rise of terrorism and extremism and the phenomenon of fake news. The third priority is to continue the operational modernisation of the organisation.

Azoulay says: “There is a very important role for Unesco as an intellectual forum and place to debate ideas around questions of culture, education, science and freedom, and eventually produce new norms.

“There are questions that arise about things like the ethics of artificial intelligence and there needs to be a place where all the voices are heard and where we can confront these issues.”

Financing is also a concern for Unesco, which survives off a modest budget of around $1bn over two years, financed by compulsory contributions from member states and voluntary contributions. “Our challenges with financing are to adapt the organisation to the fact that the budget is structurally lower, and to continue to raise external financing.” She says Unesco will also be chasing up member states that are late with their payments.

There is also the matter of trying to attract the US back in to the organisation. “The fact that the US is out is neither good for the organisation nor good for the US,” says Azoulay. “It is above all a political issue.”

Unesco is headquartered in Paris, conveniently not far from Azoulay’s apartment. Philosophically, much of what it is trying to achieve seems to resonate with the reforming zeal of French president Emmanuel Macron. He has sought to galvanise world leaders around areas such as climate change and a financial commitment to educating children in the poorest countries.

“France is a country where it’s interesting to be at the moment,” says Azoulay. “Macron has a vision of the common good that involves a focus on climate, education and the sciences. This is in keeping with the spirit of Unesco.”

Favourite thing

Azoulay’s chosen object is a silver bird, a jewel that originated in Andalusia in the 15th century, which her husband bought in Essaouira, Morocco. The motif travelled to Morocco as part of an exodus when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Azoulay says: “I like this object because it represents both migration and a shared symbol. It shows how you can share stories around objects regardless of your own story. It was a gift from my husband but bought in my parents’ hometown — my story — but he knows and shares it now.”

Harriet Agnew is an FT correspondent in Paris

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