It's about time. "In terms of material destruction, the unrest is France's worst since World War II." Link. PARIS — President Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency Tuesday, paving the way for curfews to be imposed on riot-hit cities and towns in an extraordinary measure to halt France's worst civil unrest in decades after 12 nights of violence. Police, meanwhile, said overnight unrest Monday-Tuesday, while still widespread and destructive, was not as violent as previous nights. "The intensity of this violence is on the way down," National Police Chief Michel Gaudin said, citing 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 state-of-emergency decree — invoked under a 50-year-old law — allows curfews where needed and will become effective at midnight Tuesday, with 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 — were expected to enforce the curfews. The army has not been called in. 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 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. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said curfew violators could be sentenced to up to two months imprisonment, adding that restoring order "will take time." "We are facing determined individuals, structured gangs," Villepin told parliament on Tuesday. He vowed that France will "guarantee public order to all of our citizens." Nationwide, vandals overnight burned 1,173 cars, compared to 1,408 vehicles Sunday to Monday, police said. A total of 330 people were arrested, down from 395 the night before. The violence erupted on Oct. 27 as a localized riot in a northeast Paris suburb angry over the accidental deaths of two teenagers, of Mauritanian and Tunisian descent, who were electrocuted while hiding from police in a power substation. It has grown into a nationwide insurrection by disillusioned suburban youths, many 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 be careful 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. The resort to curfews drew immediate criticism from Chirac's political opponents. Former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius said the emergency measures must be "controlled very, very closely." Communist Party leader Marie-George Buffet said the decree could enflame rioters. "It could be taken anew as a sort of challenge to carry out more violence," she said. Rioters in the southern city of Toulouse ordered passengers off a bus, then set it on fire and pelted police with gasoline bombs and rocks. Youths also torched another bus in the northeastern Paris suburb of Stains, national police spokesman Patrick Hamon said. Outside Paris in Sevran, a junior high school was set ablaze, while in the suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine youths threw gasoline bombs at a hospital, Hamon said. Nobody was injured. Rioters also attacked a police station with gasoline bombs in Chenove, in Burgundy's Cote D'Or, Hamon said. A nursery school in Lille-Fives, in northern France, was set on fire, regional officials said. In terms of material destruction, the unrest is France's worst since World War II. Never has rioting struck so many French cities simultaneously, said security expert Sebastian Roche, a director of research at the state-funded National Center for Scientific Research.