“It’s an institution that for a while now has lost the thread of its initial mission,” said Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris.
Mr. Lafont Rapnouil, a former French diplomat who has worked on United Nations affairs, said that the organization was started to foster cultural and educational exchange as a way of contributing to world peace. Instead, he said, too often it has been used as a platform for countries to take largely symbolic jabs at other countries.
The former culture minister, Audrey Azoulay, was elected by Unesco’s executive board, meeting at the organization’s Paris headquarters, to a four-year term. She defeated Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, a Qatari diplomat.
Ms. Azoulay received 30 of the board’s 58 votes, according to results posted online by Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, said in a statement congratulating Ms. Azoulay that Unesco was facing “historic challenges” and that France would work toward “a strong and responsible multilateralism.”
The election on Friday ended a weeklong process that whittled down a field of nine candidates during several rounds of voting. Although the executive board’s nominee must be formally approved by Unesco’s 195 member states in November, that step is seen as a formality.
Ms. Azoulay argued before the vote that she would strive to “restore” Unesco’s credibility and efficiency by focusing on its core missions. In the wake of the United States’ withdrawal, she said France had decided “not to leave it, but to get even more involved.”
But she will lead at a difficult time for the agency.
Unesco is best known for designating World Heritage sites, more than 1,000 of them since 1972, including ones like Yosemite National Park in California and the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan. It is also known for its educational programs, and it works extensively on the promotion of sex education, literacy, clean water and equality for women.
But it has suffered in recent years from a lack of funding as well as accusations of political bias, especially on matters related to the Israelis and Palestinians. Unesco member states have used the organization to rehash historical disputes, fight over competing claims to cultural heritage and challenge the international legitimacy of their rivals.
Recent examples include China and India filing rival claims over Tibetan medicine; Japan withholding funding after documents on the 1937 Nanjing massacre in China were added to Unesco’s Memory of the World list; and Serbia fighting to prevent Kosovo from becoming a member.
Regional rivalries were also on display during this week’s voting. Qatar, Egypt and Lebanon each fielded a candidate instead of uniting behind a common bid, even though Arab countries had long agreed that it was their turn to lead Unesco, which Westerners have directed repeatedly since its founding in 1945.
Bickering between Qatar and Egypt underscored divisions in the Arab world linked to a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar that has split the Persian Gulf region. Egypt has backed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States in their feud with Qatar, which they accuse of financing terrorism and of cozying up to Iran.
Qatar had lobbied extensively over the past two years for the Unesco position, and Mr. Kawari was seen as a favorite.
Moushira Khattab, a diplomat who was Egypt’s candidate, was eliminated from the race earlier on Friday after a preliminary vote to decide whether she or Ms. Azoulay would move into the final round. Both had received 18 votes in the fourth round of voting on Thursday.
The balloting for director general is secret, making it difficult to know how each member state on the board voted, but Ms. Azoulay, a latecomer to the race, might have benefited in the final round from the rivalry between Qatar and Egypt.
Unesco’s difficulties were compounded on Thursday when the Trump administration announced that it would withdraw from the organization. The administration, which has repeatedly criticized United Nations agencies over the past months, cited anti-Israel bias and mounting arrears to explain the decision. Israel also said Thursday that it was taking steps to withdraw.
The United States will withdraw by the end of next year, but will remain a nonmember observer at Unesco, according to American officials. The United States had already cut off all contributions to Unesco’s budget, in 2011, after Palestine was voted a full member, depriving the agency of nearly a fifth of its budget and forcing it to slash programs.
The move by the United States was met with dismay in Europe, where many see the Trump administration as increasingly withdrawn from the rest of the world and reluctant to engage in multilateral discussions — most recently, for instance, with President Trump’s disavowal on Friday of the Iran nuclear deal.
In its editorial on Friday, the French newspaper Le Monde wrote that Mr. Trump and the United States were “reaffirming their intention to turn their backs on the search for collective solutions.”
“Despite all of its many shortcomings,” the newspaper wrote, Unesco has an important role to play “in a world beset by political and religious extremism, by conspiracy theories, and often by a calling into question of science.”
Unesco’s current director general, Irina Bokova, a former diplomat from Bulgaria, was the first woman and first Eastern European to lead the organization. She was elected in 2009 and again in 2013.
Ms. Azoulay, who was born into a Jewish Moroccan family, served for just over a year as culture minister under President François Hollande. Although she declared her candidacy before the election of the current president, Emmanuel Macron, the new government supported her bid.
Mr. Lafont Rapnouil, the analyst, said that the first challenge for Ms. Azoulay would be to find common ground among Unesco’s member states to define the body’s key priorities in the coming years, a task he called “difficult.”
“In a context where the United States and Israel are readying to leave, there is going to be an even more political and polarized dimension to the way Unesco is going to work,” he said.
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