Oui, oui: Jill Biden heads to Paris to help mark US return to UN educational and scientific agency

Jul 23, 2023, 9:11 PM

FILE - First lady Jill Biden speaks during an event with the National Education Association in the ...

FILE - First lady Jill Biden speaks during an event with the National Education Association in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Tuesday, July 4, 2023, in Washington. Biden will join other VIPs and speak at a ceremony Tuesday, July 25, at the headquarters of the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization. The American flag will be raised to mark the U.S. return to membership after a five-year absence. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden has represented her country at the Olympics in Tokyo, a king’s coronation in London and a royal wedding in Jordan. She gets another chance to put her ambassadorial skills to work this week when the United States formally rejoins a United Nations agency devoted to education, science and culture around the globe.

Biden was arriving in Paris early Monday after flying overnight from Washington to join other VIPs and speak at a ceremony Tuesday at the headquarters of the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization. The American flag will be raised to mark the U.S. return to membership after a five-year absence.

UNESCO aims to foster global collaboration in education, science and culture. It also designates World Heritage sites, deeming them worthy of eternal preservation.

The agency on Sunday condemned Russia’s attack on a cathedral in Odesa and other heritage sites in Ukraine in recent days and said it will send a team to the Black Sea port city to assess damage.

In a statement, UNESCO noted that Odesa’s historic center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site earlier this year and said attacks by Russian forces contradict recent promises by Russian authorities to take precautions to spare such sites across the country.

Before returning to Washington on Wednesday, Biden will tour a historic venue in France, Mont-Saint-Michel, a 1,000-year-old Benedictine abbey that was listed as a World Heritage site in 1979. It sits on an island in Normandy, in the north of the country.

A daughter and mother of U.S. service members, the first lady will also visit Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial to pay respects to the more than 4,400 U.S. service members buried there, most of whom died in Normandy and Brittany during World War II.

She will also stop at the Elysée Palace in Paris on Tuesday to catch up with Brigitte Macron, a former teacher and the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron. The women have met several times over the past two years, including in Washington last December when Macron was on a state visit to the U.S.

Senior Biden administration officials said returning to UNESCO fits President Joe Biden’s goal of strengthening global partnerships and recommitting to American leadership at the U.N. and other international organizations to serve as a counter to nations that do not share U.S. values.

Others said Jill Biden, who teaches English and writing at a Virginia community college, was best suited to represent the United States in Paris on Tuesday.

“The first lady, as a lifelong educator and believer in the power of educational opportunity across the world, is honored to help celebrate this important milestone,” said Elizabeth Alexander, a spokesperson. “She looks forward to raising the flag for the United States once again at the UNESCO headquarters, showing our country’s commitment to international cooperation in education, science, and culture.”

The U.S. pulled out of the Paris-based organization in 2018, under then-President Donald Trump, a Republican who claimed UNESCO was biased against Israel.

The administration of Biden, a Democrat, pushed to rejoin over concerns that China was filling the void in leadership created by the U.S. absence.

The administration announced in June that it would apply to rejoin the 193-member organization that also plays a major role in setting international standards for artificial intelligence and technology education.

The organization’s governing board voted earlier this month to approve the Biden plan to rejoin, and the U.S. delivered a document certifying that it would accept the invitation to become the 194th member of UNESCO.

“Our organization is once again moving towards universality,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said at the time. She cast the U.S return as “excellent news for multilateralism as a whole. If we want to meet the challenges of our century, there can only be a collective response.”

The Trump administration in 2017 announced that the U.S. would withdraw from UNESCO, citing anti-Israel bias. That decision that took effect a year later.

The U.S. and Israel stopped financing UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011.

The Biden administration has requested $150 million for the 2024 budget to go toward UNESCO dues and arrears. The plan foresees similar requests for the ensuing years until the full debt of $619 million is repaid.

That makes up a big chunk of UNESCO’s $534 million annual operating budget. Before leaving, the U.S. contributed 22% of the agency’s overall funding.

The United States previously pulled out of UNESCO under the Reagan administration in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. It rejoined in 2003 during George W. Bush’s presidency. His wife, Laura, spoke at the ceremony.

Standing in for the president at home and abroad has become a big part of a first lady’s unofficial job description and Biden travels at least several times a week to promote administration initiatives.

The trip to Paris is Jill Biden’s fourth solo international excursion this year.

She visited Namibia and Kenya in February, followed by a trip to London in May for the coronation of King Charles III. In June, she traveled to Jordan to attend the royal wedding of a son of King Abdullah II, followed by stops in Egypt, Morocco and Portugal.

Before flying to Paris on Sunday night, she headlined fundraisers Friday and Saturday in Massachusetts for her husband’s reelection campaign.

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Oui, oui: Jill Biden heads to Paris to help mark US return to UN educational and scientific agency