The Crillion: a hotel with a history

Like generations of French, British, German, and American generals before him , Philippe Roche briskly unrolled a colorful battle plan. Two hundred years ago Francois Felix Dorothee Berton des Balbes, Comite de Crillon, would have planned his battles by the same soft light coming from his palace's exquisite central courtyard.

From 1914 to 1918, the Allied forces mapped out their campaigns in what had become the luxurious Hotel de Crillon in 1907. Again in 1939, the Crillon became Allied headquarters -- and then housed German generals from 1940 until Paris was liberated in 1944.

So it seemed just right to have the Crillon's general manager, Philippe Roche , with a polite but definitely Napoleonic air, explain his own tactics with military precision.

Mr. Roche's objective is clear -- and challenging. He heads an entirely French management team dedicated to keeping the Crillon not only in the four-star-luxe class, but keeping it in French hands.

Over the past 10 years, all of the other grande luxe Paris hotels have fallen into foreign ownership. Reeling off the great names - - the George V, the Bristol, the Ritz -- has become a list of French defeats as the English, Germans , and ARabs have bought their way into Paris.

As the last of Paris's glittering string of top hotels to remain French-owned , the Crillon is determined on victory.

Losing the Crillon would mean not only the end of a long and proud tradition, but also a particularly glaring defeat.

The Crillon has long been at the center of Parisian life. As one corner of a plain of vast, matching palaces, it marks the start of the Champs Elysee. At the other end stands the Arc de Triomphe, commemorating France's greatest battlefield victories.

Between lie President Giscard d'Estaing's Elysee Palace -- and the great houses of Courreges, Saint Laurent, Louis Jourdan, Pierre Cardin, and Ted Lapidus.

The Crillon itself was designed by Kacques Gabriel, acting on the order given by Louis XV in 1758. Gabriel's graceful square in front of the hotel became the site of mass guillotining from 1793 to 1795 -- and so was later named Palace de la Concorde and given the nonpolitical obelisque as a centerpiece in the hope of more peaceful times to come.

The splendid reception rooms and front suites look across Place de la Concorde and the Seine to the National Assembly, the Quai d'Orsay (foreign ministry), and Les Invalides -- and so, as one pearl in this necklace of landmarks, Mr. Roche explained proudly, the Crillon must remain French.

Its location in Paris and in history is an important factor in keeping the hotel's 210 rooms filled with guests -- both with the heads of state who book entire floors and with the ordinary Americans cashing in on one-week flight-and-room package tours.

But Mr. Roche, bending over his battle plans, pointed out that more is needed to win the Crillon battle.

So two entire floors are being renovated to provide air conditioning for American guests. Because this is the Crillon and regular guests expect no less, "We had to select some means of building which would make no noise," Mr. Roche said as his team of workmen moved walls silently.

And the Crillon has launched a major overseas promotion drive.

The object is to show more people what it has to offer and, said Mr. Roche, "attract the more sophisticated personality."

The Hotel de Crillon will survive as a French standard-bearer, he said modestly, because "Paris is an unavoidable destination."

And because, he seemed to say with his Parisian shrug, which included all the 18th-century stone, gilt, tapestries, and paintings surrounding us, the Crillon is the very essence of Paris. And because this is too important a battle for France to lose.

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