PARIS – France declared a state of emergency Tuesday to quell the country's worst unrest since the student uprisings of 1968 that toppled a government, and the prime minister said the nation faced a "moment of truth" over its failure to integrate Arab and African immigrants and their children.
The extraordinary security measures, which began Wednesday and are valid for 12 days, clear the way for curfews after nearly two weeks of rioting in neglected and impoverished neighborhoods with largely Muslim communities.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, tacitly acknowledging that France has failed to live up to its egalitarian ideals, reached out to the heavily immigrant suburbs where the rioting began. He said France must make a priority of working against the discrimination that feeds the frustration of youths made to feel that they do not belong in France.
"We must be lucid: The Republic is at a moment of truth," Villepin told parliament. "The effectiveness of our integration model is in question." He called the riots "a warning" and "an appeal."
Despite his conciliatory tone, Villepin said riot police faced "determined individuals, structured gangs, organized criminality," and that restoring order "will take time." Rioters have been using mobile phone text messages and the Internet to organize arson attacks, said police, who arrested two teenage bloggers accused of inciting other youths to riot.
The rioting is forcing France to confront anger building for decades among residents who complain of discrimination and unemployment. Although many of the French-born children of Arab and black African immigrants are Muslim, police say the violence is not being driven by Islamic groups.
Images of teenagers from immigrant families pelting riot police with stones and gasoline bombs — reminiscent of Palestinian youths attacking Israeli patrols — are striking a cord throughout the Arab world.
The Egyptian daily Al-Massaie referred to the riots as "the intefadeh of the poor." Arabic satellite networks have given lead coverage to the mayhem, with regular live reports. Newspapers throughout the region have closely followed the story, calling it a "nightmare" and a "war of the suburbs."
Arson attacks, rioting and other unrest have spread from the suburbs to hundreds of cities and towns — though acts of violence were down somewhat Monday night from the previous evening.
In the first reports of violence Tuesday night, a clash broke out between youths who threw gasoline bombs and police who retaliated with tear gas, LCI television said.
The 50-year-old state-of-emergency law that President Jacques Chirac invoked was originally drawn up to quell unrest in Algeria during its war of independence from France and was last used in December 1984 by the Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand against rioting in the French Pacific Ocean territory of New Caledonia.
That Chirac took such steps was a measure both of the gravity of the crisis and of his sorely tested government's determination to restore control.
"France is wounded. It does not recognize itself in these devastated streets and neighborhoods, in this outburst of hatred and of violence that vandalizes and kills," Villepin said. "The return to order is the absolute priority."
Under the emergency laws, police — with 8,000 officers deployed and 1,500 reservists called up as reinforcements — could be empowered in areas where curfews are imposed to put troublemakers under house arrest, ban or limit the movement of people and vehicles, confiscate weapons and close public spaces where gangs gather, Villepin said.
The Interior Ministry said local officials were deciding whether curfew measures were needed in their areas. The Justice Ministry said curfew violators could face up to two months imprisonment and a $4,400 fine. Minors face one month imprisonment.
The northern French city of Amiens and the central city of Orleans said they planned curfews for minors under age 16, who must be accompanied by adults at night. Amiens also planned to forbid the sale of gasoline in cans to minors.
The widespread violence has already led France to begin fast-track trials, with 106 adults and 33 minors so far sentenced to prison or detention centers.
The violence started Oct. 27 as a localized riot in a northeast Paris suburb angry over the accidental electrocutions of two teenagers, of Mauritanian and Tunisian descent, 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.
In his speech to parliament, Villepin said jobseekers with foreign-sounding names do not get equal consideration as those with traditional French-sounding names.
The French system, said Jean-Christophe Lagarde, a lawmaker from Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of northeast Paris where the unrest started, is "running out of steam."
The main opposition Socialists, through their parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Ayrault, said they did not oppose the use of curfews but also warned that they should not be used to hide suburban "misery" or become "a new mark of segregation."
Communist Party leader Marie-George Buffet warned that the decree could enflame rioters. "It could be taken anew as a sort of challenge to carry out more violence," she said.
French historians say the rioting is more widespread and destructive in material terms than the May riots of 1968, when university students erected barricades in Paris' Latin Quarter and across France, throwing paving stones at police. That unrest, a turning point in modern France, led to a general strike by 10 million workers and forced President Gen. Charles de Gaulle to dissolve parliament and fire Premier Georges Pompidou.