President Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency Tuesday to impose curfews on riot-hit cities and towns, an extraordinary measure to halt France's worst civil unrest in decades after violence raged for a 12th night. The state-of-emergency decree allowing curfews where needed will become effective at midnight on Tuesday and has an initial 12-day limit.
Police, massively reinforced as the violence has fanned out from its initial flash point in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, are expected to enforce the curfews. The army has not been called in.
Local officials "will be able to impose curfews on the areas where this decision applies," Chirac said at a Cabinet meeting. "It is necessary to accelerate the return to calm."
The recourse to a 1955 state-of-emergency law that dates back to France's war in Algeria was a measure both of the gravity of mayhem that has spread to hundreds of French towns and cities and of the determination of Chirac's sorely tested government to quash it.
"I have decided ... to give the forces of order supplementary measures of action to ensure the protection of our citizens and their property," Chirac said.
Police reported that overnight unrest Monday-Tuesday, while still widespread and destructive, was not as violent as previous nights. Nationwide, vandals burned 1,173 cars, compared to 1,408 vehicles Sunday-Monday, police said. A total of 330 people were arrested, down from 395 the night before.
"The intensity of this violence is on the way down," National Police Chief Michel Gaudin said, adding that there were "much fewer" attacks on public buildings, and fewer direct clashes between youths and police. He said rioting was reported in 226 towns across France, compared to nearly 300 the night before.
The violence started Oct. 27 as a localized riot in a northeast Paris suburb angry over the accidental deaths of two teenagers, of Mauritanian and Tunisian descent, electrocuted while hiding from police in a power substation.
It has grown into a nationwide insurrection by disillusioned suburban youths, many of them French-born children of immigrants from France's former territories like Algeria. France's suburbs have long been neglected and their youth complain of a lack of jobs and widespread discrimination, some of it racial.
The violence claimed its first victim Monday, with the death of a 61-year-old man beaten into a coma last week. Foreign governments have warned tourists to tread carefully in France. Apparent copycat attacks have spread to Belgium and Germany, where cars were burned. France is using fast-track trials to punish rioters, worrying some human rights campaigners.