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French bureaucrats refuse to give up free homes


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French bureaucrats refuse to give up lavish free homes as economy wilts

By Kim Willsher in Paris

(Filed: 26/06/2005)

Sunday Telegraph


The celebrated palace of Louis XIV at Versailles was once home to 20,000 artistocrats. Today, its illustrious apartments are inhabited rent-free by a new kind of nobility - lucky employees of the French Republic.

The concept of "egalité" may be enshrined in the French constitution but, when it comes to free housing, some are proving more equal than others. Staff at the chateau, who range from directors to gardeners and maintenance workers, are housed in 200 coveted "grace-and-favour" apartments, which are considered the ultimate "job perk".

Almost 200,000 politicians, civil servants and public sector workers benefit from free or low-rent accommodation in France. The perk is estimated to cost French taxpayers more than a billion euros a year and millions more in undeclared taxes, and it has become the focus of increasing public outrage about the squandering of state money.

State prosecutors who have investigated the perk, which dates back to the 1940s, estimate that although its property portfolio could earn the state about €1.4 billion a year, rental income only totals €30 million (£19 million).

Since that investigation was carried out three years ago, nothing has changed, even though France is battling to cut public spending and kick-start its ailing economy.

Those who could change the system, which was enshrined in 1949, are the ones who benefit most from it. Grace-and-favour housing is allocated not only to national and local politicians and government mandarins, but also to bank employees, hospital and museum workers and even, in some cases, public crèche and swimming pool staff.

A number of public workers defended the perk, citing the "absolute necessity" of living near work in case of emergency.

Their claims meet with some scepticism from investigators: "In reality, housing benefits have become a way to bump up the remuneration of staff in important but unfair proportions," they said.

One French MP, René Dosière, the vice-president of the Parti Socialiste, said: "For a long time I've been aware of the meandering nature of administrative life, but I've never understood quite what sort of urgency the General Treasurer might face." According to Le Point, a respected news magazine, five architects working for the Historic Monuments service at the Ministry of Culture were allocated apartments from which they ran private practices.

After enjoying 15 years of rent-free housing in two of the country's grand palaces, Le Point claimed, two stayed on even after retirement.

Other beneficiaries are less grateful. According to Capital, a financial magazine, Christian Poncelet, the president of the Senat, the higher house of the French parliament, was allocated a second luxury apartment after turning down the first, in a chic Left Bank building, because it was on the fifth floor. "His dog suffers from vertigo," said one of his staff.

Jean Faure, meanwhile, a senior official at the Senat, insisted that he didn't live in his rent-free 350 sq metre (3,767 sq ft) flat facing the Jardin du Luxembourg. He only kept a toothbrush at the apartment, he said.

The largesse is not limited to Paris. Local "préfets" also enjoy lavish accommodation. The state's representative in the Rhône region lives in an eight-room flat with additional reception rooms, and a second six-room residence with gardens, tennis court and swimming pool.

The state prosecutors found the Ministry of Culture, with its portfolio of apartments in magnificent national palaces, including Fontainebleau, the Louvre and Versailles, guilty of some of the worst abuses.

The director of the Louvre lived in a 236 sq metre (2,540 sq ft) flat, while the chief security officer's was even bigger, at 254 sq metres (2,734 sq ft). Even the museum's technical director enjoyed a flat of 121 sq metres (1,302 sq ft), which is large by Paris standards.

All three were rent-free. Other apartments - some up to 600 sq metres (6,458 sq ft) - were let for rents "which could in no way be called normal", said the report. Investigators were astonished that the benefits were declared to the tax authorities "by neither the tenants nor those who employed them", nor even, it added, "by directors of the fiscal services".

The uses and abuses of grace-and-favour accommodation were highlighted in February, when Hervé Gaymard, the finance minister in President Jacques Chirac's right-of-centre government, moved his wife and eight children into a £9,800-a-month flat paid for by public funds.

Mr Gaymard was forced to resign after it was revealed that he also owned a number of properties, including a flat in Paris that was rented to a friend.

In 1995, Mr Chirac's own housing arrangements came in for scrutiny when it emerged that he rented a 189 sq metre (2,034 sq ft) property on the Left Bank for only £1,220 a month. The flat turned out to belong to City Hall, over which Mr Chirac had presided as mayor.

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