UNESCO's executive board on Friday chose former French Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay to be the UN cultural agency's next leader over a Qatari candidate in an unusually heated race overshadowed by Mideast tensions.
The US announcement this week that it's quitting UNESCO rocked the multi-day election and heightened concerns about the agency's funding and future direction.
Azoulay succeeds outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, whose eight-year term was marred by financial woes and criticism over Palestine's inclusion as a member.
On Thursday, the US and Israel said they plan to pull out of the Paris-based organization over its perceived anti-Israel bias.
The 45-year-old took the stage to chants of "Audrey! Audrey!" following her victory and said the response to UNESCO's problems was to reform the agency, not to walk away, an understated rebuke of the US and Israel.
"In this moment of crisis, I believe we must invest in UNESCO more than ever, look to support and reinforce it and to reform it. And not leave it", she said.
In a short address, she also thanked "the Executive Board member states that gave me their trust" in her surprise 30-28 vote win over Qatari candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari.
UNESCO's general assembly will have to sign off next month on the executive board's leadership pick, but it's seen as a formality.
The new director will set priorities for the organization best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions.
The agency also works to improve education for girls, promote an understanding of the Holocaust's horrors, defend media freedom and coordinate science about climate change.
Azoulay, a Jewish woman, had started the week's voting with much less support but built up backing as other candidates dropped out and won a runoff earlier on Friday against Egypt's candidate.
The vote was a huge blow to Arab states, who had long wanted to lead the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
UNESCO has previously had European, Asian, African and American chiefs, but never an Arab one since the organization was founded in 1945 following World War II to promote world peace through culture.
The agency's inclusion of Palestine as a member state in 2011 complicated this push, as did Qatar's diplomatic dispute with Arab neighbors over accusations of sponsoring Islamic extremism.
Azoulay will be the second French leader of the organization since Rene Maheu, UNESCO's director general from 1961-74. Azoulay's father is Moroccan and was an influential adviser to Moroccan kings, so she does have a connection to the Arab world.