Why do Parisian doors lock themselves?
Two events all Parisians dread: receiving a Registered Letter Return Receipt Requested, and locking themselves out of their apartments.
Registered letters are almost always the bearers of bad news: an eviction notice; a warning that wages are going to be docked; a bank account seized for non-payment of taxes; a summons to appear in court – or something else sure to be unwelcome and unpleasant.
In all the places I have lived in America, it was impossible to lock myself out because to lock the door required a key: you close the door and then you lock it. Any Parisian can tell you that as soon as you shut the door, it is locked.
Basically, forget your key and you’re locked out. If you don’t have a spare hidden somewhere or entrusted to a friend or neighbour, your only recourse is to head for a locksmith.
Life in Paris could not exist without locksmiths and there is always one nearby to rush to the rescue – for a price.
Most Americans would have trouble locating a locksmith, but in Paris they are nearly as ubiquitous as bistros. A search on the Pages Jaunes resulted in 40 pages with a total of 799 locksmiths in the 20 arrondissements of Paris alone – not including the 29 suburban towns bordering the city.
When I lived in the 17th arrondissement, there were then two locksmiths facing each other on the avenue des Ternes. Both appeared to be doing handsome business.
Generally speaking, to open a door, whether the key has been lost or stolen, the basic charge for a service call can range from €90 to €250.
The cost of replacing a lock can run from €120 to €300. If the door has a three-point locking system, the locksmith can charge from around €1,500 to as much as €5,000. Reproducing a key can cost from as little as €5 to as much as €300.
The worst case of an unscrupulous Paris locksmith that I have found was documented in Le Monde in 2015. A certain ‘Michel’ slammed the door without taking his key and ended up paying €7,500.
He called a locksmith who had left a flyer in his mailbox.
Two employees arrived after an hour and quickly prepared an estimate: €1,165 – already more than 11 times greater than the normal rate for a service call of €100.
They inserted an awl into the keyhole and drove it in with a hammer. The door opened but, since it was one of the burglar-proof three-point locks, all three bolts were damaged and needed replacing.
The locksmiths left and returned an hour later with a new three-point lock set – and an additional estimate: €4,750 for the new lock, which costs €540 in hardware stores, as well as another charge of €2,113.63 for labour and an additional €686.36 VAT.
When he learned that the total charge was €7,500, Michel protested he “felt he had been the victim of a holdup”.
After contacting a consumers’ defence organisation for assistance, it was now Michel’s turn to send a Registered Letter Return Receipt Requested. Citing French consumer protection law, Michel demanded restitution of €6,000.
I have started to wonder why the doors of Paris apartments automatically lock when the door is closed. Could the Parisian locksmiths have lobbied City Hall to require that doors lock when they shut?
Can you imagine how much money those 799 Parisian locksmiths collect by just opening several doors each day?
I am not given to conspiracy theories but I believe that the Paris locksmiths may have organised a kind of mafia to make sure that apartment doors lock automatically when closed, guaranteeing themselves a steady income from scatterbrained Parisians.
Article by Ronald W Kenyon, author of On the Trail in France, documenting his discoveries in la France profonde [“the soul of France”] on foot, and 18 other books. See www.amazon.com/author/ronaldwkenyon