France's storm of rioting lost strength yesterday with a drop of nearly half in the number of car burnings, police said. But looters and vandals still defied a state of emergency with attacks on stores, a newspaper warehouse and a subway station.
The extraordinary 12-day state of emergency, which went into effect yesterday covered Paris, its suburbs and 27 other cities and towns from the Mediterranean to the German border and Rouen in the north -- an indication of how widespread arson, riots and other unrest have become in nearly two weeks of violence.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin published a decree invoking a 50-year-old law that gives senior government officials the power to impose curfews, although official figures showed a sharp drop in unrest.
Police said 617 vehicles were set ablaze across the country on Tuesday night, about half the number the night before.
It was not immediately clear whether the fall was due to the announcement of the measures or signalled the heat had gone out of the unrest by youngsters protesting against racism, police treatment and poor job prospects.
Major cities covered by emergency powers include Marseille, Strasbourg, Lyon and Toulouse, as well as the suburbs of Paris where rioting began on Oct. 27 after the deaths of two youths who were accidentally electrocuted.
Villepin has ordered in an extra 1,500 police to back up the 8,000 officers already deployed to combat the most serious public disorder since protests in May 1968. The number of arrests rose to 204 from 151 the previous night.
Fears of riots erupting in other European countries have helped push down the value of the euro. French officials are also worried investment and tourism will be hit by the violence, which has put pressure on Villepin and President Jacques Chirac.
"The prime minister seems to be losing his cool," Le Monde newspaper wrote in an unusually harsh editorial.
It said that evoking laws dating to France's colonial era showed Villepin "does not have the nerves that a statesman needs."
Youths set a bus ablaze overnight near Bordeaux and isolated acts of violence broke out in several towns, including Amiens in the north.
Officials slapped a curfew on unaccompanied youths until 6am and banned the purchase of fuel in an effort to stamp out the production of firebombs.
The opposition Socialists have vowed they will closely monitor application of the law, which was passed in 1955 when French authorities feared the Algerian insurgency could spread to metropolitan France.
"France is wounded. It cannot recognize itself in its streets and devastated areas in these outbursts of hatred and violence which destroy and kill," Villepin told parliament during a debate on the disturbances on Tuesday.
The text of the emergency powers decree published in the official journal allows prefects, the top official in each of the 96 administrative areas, to ban the movement of people and traffic at specified times.
Prefects can "institute protection or security zones in which the stay of individuals is regulated."
It also grants Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, blamed by some opponents for fomenting trouble with strong language, power to place individuals under house arrest, confiscate weapons, ban meetings, close meeting halls and order searches of residences without a judge's order.