President Jacques Chirac announced extraordinary security measures, which began on Wednesday and are valid for a 12-day state of emergency, clearing the way for curfews after nearly two weeks of rioting in neglected and impoverished neighbourhoods with largely Muslim communities.
Officials were forced to shut down the southern city of Lyon's subway system after a firebomb exploded in a station, a regional government spokesman said, adding no one was hurt.
Transport officials were to decide on Wednesday morning when service could resume, the spokesman said.
Rioters looted and set fire to a furniture and electronics store and an adjacent carpet store in Arras, in the northern Pas-de-Calais region, national police spokesman Patrick Reydy said.
Arsonists also set fire to the Nice-Matin newspaper's office in Grasses, in the southeast Alpes-Maritimes region, he said.
Nine buses were set ablaze at a bus depot in Dole, in the eastern Jura region, Reydy said.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy
speaks with police in Toulouse
A bus exploded in Bassens, near the southwest city of Bordeaux, after a firebomb was thrown into it, he said, adding the driver escaped.
In Nice, a man was in serious condition after being hit by a barbell that fell from a highrise building in a neighbourhood where there had been recent riots, a local official said.
Authorities were investigating whether it was an accident or an attack.
Youths threw petrol bombs at police who retaliated with tear gas in the southern city of Toulouse, where Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was visiting, LCI television said.
"None of us have a choice," Sarkozy told police and fire department representatives in Toulouse. "We have to succeed. We will not give a centimetre."
By contrast, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, tacitly acknowledging that France has failed to live up to its egalitarian ideals, said discrimination was a "daily and repeated" reality in tough suburbs, feeding the frustration of youths made to feel that they don't belong in France.
Rioters have used text messages
and email to organise attacks
"France is wounded. It does not recognise itself in these devastated streets and neighbourhoods, in this outburst of hatred and of violence that vandalises and kills," Villepin said.
"The return to order is the absolute priority."
"We must be lucid. The republic is at a moment of truth," Villepin told parliament on Tuesday in a debate where lawmakers spoke frankly about France's failings.
Villepin said riot police faced "determined individuals, structured gangs, organised criminality".
Police say rioters have been using mobile phone text messages and the internet to organise arson attacks. Police on Monday arrested two teenagers accused of using the internet to incite other youths to riot.
French regional officials were preparing to use the state of emergency powers to impose curfews.
The Interior Ministry said there was no centralised list of towns and cities that would be affected, because curfew measures were being drawn up locally.
Up to 1500 police reservists have
been called up as reinforcements
The northern French city of Amiens, the central city of Orleans and Savigny-sur-Orge, in the Essonne region south of Paris said they planned curfews for minors, who must be accompanied by adults at night.
Amiens also planned to forbid the sale of petrol in cans to minors.
Curfew violators face up to two months in jail and a $4400 fine, the Justice Ministry said.
Minors face one month in jail. Police - with 8000 officers deployed and 1500 reservists called up as reinforcements - are expected to enforce curfews. The army has not been called in.
"France is wounded. It does not recognise itself in these devastated streets and neighbourhoods, in this outburst of hatred and of violence that vandalises and kills. The return to order is the absolute priority."
Dominique de Villepin,
French Prime Minister
The 50-year-old state-of-emergency law that Chirac invoked was 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.
The violence started on 27 October as a riot in a northeast Paris suburb after the accidental deaths of two teenagers, of North African 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 such as Algeria.
France's suburbs have been neglected, and their youth complain of a lack of jobs and widespread discrimination.
The emergency decree gives officials power 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 told parliament. But he said that restoring order "will take time".
French historians say the rioting is more widespread and more destructive in material terms than the May riots of 1968, when university students erected barricades in Paris's 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 General Charles de Gaulle to dissolve parliament and fire premier Georges Pompidou.
Police stand guard at the entrance
Le Mirail in Toulouse
Vandals burned 1173 cars overnight Monday-Tuesday, down from 1408 vehicles the previous night, police said.
Police made 330 arrests, down 395 the night before.
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.
Youths have set fire to vehicles in several cities in Belgium for the third night in what officials say appeared to be an imitation of violence in France.
A car, a bus and a truck went up in flames in the port city of Antwerp, while a car was set ablaze in Ghent on Tuesday night. Another car was torched in Lokeren, a town between Ghent and Antwerp.