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 flashpoint 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.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said the authorities would be able to restrict the movement of people and vehicles and to set up perimeters around trouble spots.
He said 1500 police and gendarme reservists would be deployed as reinforcements for 8000 officers on the ground but ruled out army intervention.
A town mayor near the centre of the riots, in the northeastern Paris suburb of Raincy, imposed a municipal curfew from Monday to "avoid a tragedy".
State authorities in the northern town of Amiens were the first to declare an overnight curfew on Tuesday.
De Villepin told national television late on Monday that the curfew powers would be invoked under a 60-year-old law first brought in as an unsuccessful attempt to quell an insurrection in Algeria, at a time when the north African country was a French colony.
African immigrants and Muslim
groups condemned the unrest
But Elisabeth Guigou, a Socialist deputy from the northeastern Paris suburbs, said that invoking a curfew law passed during the Algerian war was "not the best reference" for fighting unrest among youths mostly of North African Arab and African origin.
The French cabinet met in special session on Tuesday to put the plan into effect.
"I confirm to you that the decision in principle was taken," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said after the meeting.
Speaking from Paris, Michele al-Kik, Aljazeera's bureau chief in France, said police had installed closed-circuit cameras in and around the city of Paris in an effort to curb the unrest and arrest rioters.
Private security was also called upon in some areas, hired by the municipality to guard private and public property.
But this arrangement causes a legal dilemma over whether these companies are legally mandated to open fire at rioters suspected of violating the law.
Chirac and de Villepin (L) have
vowed to restore order
The violence started on 27 October among youths in a northeastern Paris suburb angry over the deaths of two teenagers who were electrocuted, but it has grown into a nationwide insurrection by suburban youth burning and clashing with police.
The mayhem is forcing France to confront anger building for decades in neglected suburbs and among the French-born children of mainly African origin.
The French teenagers whose deaths sparked the rioting were of Arab-African descent.
President Jacques Chirac, in private comments more conciliatory than his warnings on Sunday that rioters would be caught and punished, acknowledged in a meeting on Monday with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga that France has not integrated immigrant youths, she said.
Interior Minister Sarkozy is
accused of inflaming unrest
Chirac deplored the "ghettoisation of youths of African or North African origin", and recognised "the incapacity of French society to fully accept them", Vike-Freiberga said.
France "has not done everything possible for these youths, supported them so they feel understood, heard and respected", Chirac added, noting that unemployment runs as high as 40% in some suburbs, four times the national rate, according to Vike-Freiberga.
Interior Minister Sarkozy is accused of inflaming violence with tough talk and calling troublemakers "scum".
Suburban youths quoted by Le Parisien newspaper said the emergency measures "won't change anything".
"This isn't going to solve things," one said. "More repression means more destruction ... more cops is just provocation."
The Interior Ministry said on Tuesday that 1173 vehicles had been torched during the night, compared with 1408 the previous night.
At least four police officers were hurt, compared with 36 on Sunday night. About 330 rioters were detained.
1173 cars were torched over
night on Monday into Tuesday
In Toulouse, youths set fire to a bus and 21 cars, police said.
At least two cars were set ablaze near Lille and two more in Strasbourg, Reuters reporters said.
Police said 14 cars were set alight in the Yvelines district west of Paris and 17 in Seine-Saint-Denis north of the capital, home to many Arab and African immigrants where the unrest began
Among the hundreds arrested in 12 nights of rioting, most have been teenagers, while some were younger. Nearly all are from France's large Arab and black minorities.
"For my children I am the embodiment of failure," said Meziane, 50, a former journalist who came to France from Algeria at the end of the 1980s.
A father of three, he has worked as a house painter and a waiter but is currently unemployed.
"How do you expect my children to listen to me or want to be like me, when I can never say 'yes' to the things that they want? And this in a society where they are under constant pressure to consume," he said at his home in the Paris suburb of La Courneuve.