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. 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. 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.