Any list of the legendary plush hotels of Paris usually includes Mohammed al Fayed's Ritz, the Hotel George V and the Crillon. But to gasps of astonishment, the inaugural pantheon of French "palaces" – an official new category for five-star hotels of special character – has snubbed all three.
The Crillon, on the Place de la Concorde, declined to apply for the new status because it is about to be sold and refurbished. But what can explain the absence of the Ritz, on the Place Vendôme, owned by Mohammed al Fayed since 1979, once the hotel of choice of Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway and the starting place for Princess Diana's final journey? Or the failure of the George V, just off the Champs Elysées, rebuilt for £200m in 1997-99, and usually listed among the finest hotels in the world?
The 10-strong jury awarded "palace" status to just four Parisian hotels and four in the French provinces. They were the Meurice, Plaza-Athénée, Bristol and Park Hyatt Vendôme in Paris; the Cheval Blanc and Les Airelles in Courchevel; the Palais in Biarritz and the Grand Hotel in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
Although neither the Ritz nor the Hotel George V has stooped to comment, one of their greatest rivals has objected strongly on their behalf. François Delahaye, head of the Dorchester group which owns the Meurice and Plaza- Athénée, said his double success was a "bitter victory", adding: "The jury has made itself look silly."
Gabriel Matar, French director of the hotel consultancy group Jones Lang LaSalle, said the jury had "signed the death warrant" of the new "palace" title, created last year to reinforce the image of France as a luxury destination. "As far as quality of service goes, the George V is the bench-mark for the rest of the world," he said
The official criteria include location, architecture, history, the size and comfort of rooms, the language skills of staff and the quality of restaurants and health and spa facilities.
Dominique Fernandez, the chairman of the jury, novelist and member of the Académie Française, said they had also tried to take account of less tangible qualities. "A palace is not just a space surrounded by four walls," he said. "It is a kind of novel placed in a mythical setting which the guest enters like the world of 1,001 Nights."
That description fits the George V and the Ritz better than, say, the Bristol, near the Elysée Palace, now the Parisian hotel of choice of some Hollywood stars but is comparatively lacking in atmosphere and glamorous anecdotal history.
Mr Fernandez refused to say why the Bristol and three others had succeeded and the Ritz and George V had failed, but rumours spread that the unrecognised pair had offended the jurors, or the government, in some way.
Christian Mantei, head of Atout France, the organisation which ran the contest for the French tourism ministry dismissed the controversy as "over-dramatic and exaggerated". He hinted that the George V and Ritz had failed to make the first list because they were planning, or undergoing, renovations. The jury had not had time to visit all the hotels, he said. New applications were invited by 30 June. A second list of "palaces" would be announced in November.
The super-star Palaces
Meurice, Paris Former guests include Queen Victoria and Tchaikovsky.
Plaza-Athénée, Paris Grace Kelly, Gary Cooper and Jackie Kennedy among its former guests.
Bristol, Paris Only luxury hotel in Paris not to be requisitioned during the Second World War.
Cheval Blanc, Courchevel Offers ski-in, ski-out access to the slopes.
Park Hyatt Vendôme, Paris One of the country's newest "palaces", having opened in 2002.
Les Airelles, Courchevel Boasts an outdoor Jacuzzi for views of the surrounding mountains.
Palais, Biarritz Built as a summer palace by Napoelon III.
Grand Hotel, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat It has been attracting aristocracy and celebrities since 1908.