Members of a new generation of aristocrats at the heart of France's fifth republic lord it over their fellow citizens. They have no titles, crests or illustrious ancestors but they are among Europe's nobility.
They are the estimated 200,000 French politicians, leading civil servants and public service workers who benefit from generous grace-and-favor housing.
These include flats at the Palais de Versailles, the Louvre and some of Paris' most fashionable arrondissements.
Among the privileged is the director of a public library who rents a flat of 230m2 in Paris' Marais district for just 500 euro (US$604) a month, about one-fifth of the market rate.
Then there's the director of the national music conservatory who has a 200m2, eight-room flat for free and the library official at the Pompidou center whose 219m2 flat next door is also rent free.
The market rate for that is about 10,000 euro a month.
The perk has been highlighted in a parliamentary report, which has prompted Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's unpopular government to promise to reform a system that dates back to 1949.
The state owns more than 28,000 buildings worth about 33 billion euro. The beneficiaries of subsidized housing are France's well-paid functionnaires -- museum directors, bank managers, regional councilors and public architects -- who are paid salaries that the country's 10 percent unemployed can only dream of but pay nothing or peppercorn rents for their housing.
The comparison between high-ranking public workers who get cheap housing and employees such as police officers and hospital workers -- who are seen as more deserving but do not get such help -- is not lost on liberal newspapers such as Liberation.
"All these advantages go to those high public service officials who already enjoy comfortable treatment," the paper said.
"What's more, it's not always the case that the constraints of their positions really justify the allocation of free accommodation near their place of work," it said.
The paper added: "What about the constraints of nurses in Paris' hospitals who work nights, Sundays, bank holidays but are forced to live in the suburbs at their own cost because they can't afford to live in the capital?"
The comparison was highlighted earlier this year when it was revealed that Herve Gaymard, the finance minister, had moved into a 600m2 flat in Paris' Left Bank with his wife and eight children, paid for by the state. The property had a market rent of 14,000 euro.
Officially, Gaymard did nothing wrong even if he failed to mention that he owned several other properties.
But it was viewed as a let-them-eat-cake moment. With a floundering economy and instructions that belts had to be tightened, Chirac and his government were clearly out of touch with ordinary people.
In the public clamor that followed, Gaymard was obliged to resign and an investigation was ordered into the issue.
The parliamentary committee that wrote the report said it could not say exactly how many of France's leading officials had grace-and-favor housing.
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