Retirements meant new France coach Marc Lievremont could not call upon players like Fabien Pelous, Raphael Ibanez, Serge Betsen and Christophe Dominici.
Elsewhere, injuries have struck, especially in the front-row, but his decision to overlook Chabal proved a major surprise.
Lievremont insisted the call had been his, and his alone, claiming: "There was no pressure in France about the selection.
"When we looked at the players in the number eight position, we felt Elvis Vermeulen is the best player at the moment."
French Rugby Federation chief Bernard Lapasset claimed Lievremont had been "courageous" in naming so many changes in his first squad.
But Lievremont added: "There was nothing courageous in what I did. Some people have retired, and there are some heavy injuries.
"There is a lot of talk about the 2011 World Cup - and huge disappointment from the 2007 World Cup from France's perspective - but we want to keep an eye on what is happening now.
"Over the past few months we have looked at a lot of players. We have a list of players for the immediate future, but also a list of young players for 2011 who are not there yet, but will be eventually.
"Yes, of course he (Chabal) he has a chance to get back. The door is still open to those players left out."
Lievremont's first squad announcement saw call-ups for props Julien Brugnaut and Lionel Faure, lock Arnaud Mela, scrum-half Morgan Parra, fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc and wing Julien Malzieu.
Toulouse hooker William Servat is recalled to the squad after a lengthy absence and will battle with Dimitri Szarzewski for a place.
In the second row, recently-appointed captain Lionel Nallet will be partnered by Albi's Mela or Loic Jacquet, who is enjoying an impressive season with Clermont Auvergne.
Montpellier's Fulgence Ouedraogo, who has one cap to his name, is one of four back-row forwards chosen, but Chabal, Remy Martin, Imanol Harinordoquy and Yannick Nyanga all missed out.
Lievremont, speaking at Wednesday's Six Nations launch in London, said: "It is a new group of players.
"We have lots of ambitions. We hope to win the first match, and go from there.
"I am convinced about the value of this squad. We need to build and look forward to the future."