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The Key to Unlocking the French Door

I got locked out of my Nice apartment. It’s the second time in 24.5 years that I’ve been locked out and the only time I’ve had to call a locksmith to save me. This time, it was my own dumb fault for not leaving well-enough alone, of which I am often guilty. Let me explain.

Several years ago, during the height of the summer season, a renter in the apartment next door had been shopping at all the designer shops: Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Bally, Massimo Dutti, etc. The bags must have attracted the attention of thieves, who subsequently broke into both of our apartments and stole $50,000 worth of jewelry with which she was traveling! They broke into the main door that leads to a small vestibule, and then into each of our apartment doors. (Our apartments were once one large apartment, later divided into two, hence the vestibule and independent doors to each apartment.)

We immediately remedied the situation by having our property manager organize the installation of a heavy-duty “Porte Blindée” on the main door…to the tune of a whopping 1,200€, not counting the keys which cost about 75€ each. The French all know about Portes Blindées. These are reinforced armored doors that, in our case, has five locking points. It’s made by the French company Héraclès. Having a door like this reduces insurance costs as they are considered virtually impossible to violate.

French locks are like no other locks in the world. Ever since Louis XVI was thought to have spent “more time on padlocks than wedlock,” locks have been in their blood, royal or not. The royal locksmith, François Gamain, taught him how to make locks from scratch on a small forge that was installed above his private library equipped with anvils and other tools. The room was filled with  common, hidden and gilded locks. (Learn more here)

Anyone who has ever visited France and given a key to open an apartment door is usually surprised by the elaborate shape of the key. One starts to recognize certain types of keys which match certain kinds of locks, each uniquely different. They are like nothing you’ve ever seen Stateside and are incredibly complicated. The basic French lock is the predecessor to what we know as a chamber lock, first manufactured in France in the 17th-century. The lock mechanism, like a pin tumbler, is enclosed in a housing. The key, with a solid metal shaft, can be inserted into the housing from either side.

When I arrived in Nice after the new armored door had been installed by our manager and saw that a key was necessary to unlock it from the inside, I wasn’t happy, to put it mildly. Normally, a door of this type would have a bolt to simply turn to release the lock on the inside. Two households share this door. If it were locked with no key sitting in the lock, then it would be impossible to open and present a danger in the event of fire or other emergency. If a key were sitting in the lock at all times, then  someone could easily steal it and we’d be back at square one, replacing the lock, again at a huge expense.

I paid a visit to the locksmith who installed it and asked, 1) Why had he installed such an unsafe lock? And 2) can it be changed? And 3) how much would that cost?

The answers were not what I wanted to hear: 1) That’s how most of the doors are made. 2) Yes, it can be changed. 3) A new lock will cost several hundred euros and the keys will be 75€ each.

Our answer to him was: thanks, but no thanks. And our answer to the problem was simply to leave the door unlocked overnight in case of fire or other emergency and otherwise, lock it whenever we left the premises. Years went by, and the dilemma continued to bother me. Now, this is where I just can’t leave well-enough alone.

I had this “bright idea” to have another key made, attach it to a chain and secure the chain to the frame of the door so that it wasn’t easily stealable. My neighbors agreed to do it and share half the costs. That set me in motion.


First, I had the key reproduced by my favorite locksmith, Michel, at Express Service in the Passage Vendome near Place de la République. (Michel has been making my keys and fixing my shoes for the last 20 years. He asks me to marry him every time I come by, to which I always answer, “Next week in Las Vegas.”) Then, I went to Leroy Merlin and purchased a pretty gold chain. I found two key rings in my stash of hardware — one to attach to the key and the chain, the other to attach the chain to a hooked screw that I could secure into the door frame.

Once I landed in Nice on Sunday, it didn’t take long before the key on the chain was installed in the doorframe and working like a charm. Before I left the apartment with the key sitting happily in the lock on the inside of the door, I tested it to see that it could be locked or opened from the outside, using another key. As is more often than not, if a French key is sitting in the lock on the inside, it’s impossible to open the door with a key from the outside. This is a cardinal rule of French locks that everyone in France needs to know. I knew it, which is why I tested it first. No problem, it worked well and off I went on my merry way with the mission accomplished.

Later that day, I returned to the apartment for a brief period, then left again, but noticed as the door was closing behind me, that the key on the inside was on a slight angle, not straight in the lock as it normally is. When I turned around once in the hall to lock the door behind me, it wouldn’t lock nor would it open. I was clearly locked out!

I tried everything. The key wasn’t budging. I shook the door; I pounded it. My upstairs neighbor came down with a long thin pick. That was useless. Fortunately I had my phone. Using Safari, I Googled and found locksmiths in the area. I dialed locksmith #1. “We can’t come till tonight and that will cost you 200€.” Then, I dialed locksmith #2. “Sorry, we don’t have anyone who can come today, but here’s the number of another locksmith.” I dialed locksmith #3. “I can be there in 20 minutes and the cost is 95€.”

“Yes, thank you! Please come now.”

Le monsieur arrived with a small bag. In it were a few X-ray films. Within a few moments, he slid a film between the door and the frame, then slid it up and down along the area around the lock and the door opened…like magic. Then, he said, “I know this door and lock! I installed it myself!” He remembered my property manager and when I pressed him on why a lock using a key instead of a bolt on the inside was installed, he answered, “Someone here said it was too expensive.” I have no idea who made that decision, but it wasn’t me!

I handed over 95€ in cash, thanked him for his efforts and immediately removed the key from the inside of the door before I had a chance to lock myself out again.

Live and learn: 1) Leave things alone — if they “ain’t” broke, don’t fix them. 2) Never underestimate the complexity and power of a French lock. 3) Never leave home without your phone. 4) Always have enough cash to pay a locksmith (I got off cheap this time!). 5) Keep X-ray film hidden somewhere near your door just in case you get locked out again. 6) Never leave home without fully locking your door, because burglars have X-ray film, too. 7) Become a locksmith and make a ton of money rescuing stupid people like me…or marry your locksmith and never get locked out again.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds

Editor of Parler Nice


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P.S. Niçoise-New Orleanian and fine artist, Anne Pujalte, invites all of you to her singular, whimsical and joyful world. Attend her “vernissages” (art openings) this coming March 12th in Paris and/or March 30th in Beaulieu sur Mer.


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