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French Cabinet approves extending state of emergency by three months

PARIS — The French Cabinet approved a bill Monday to extend the country's state of emergency for three months, while youths set schools ablaze and waged other scattered arson attacks across France.

Though the unrest is abating, the bill, if approved by parliament as expected, would allow a 12-day state of emergency to be prolonged until mid-February if needed. The emergency measures empower regions to impose curfews on minors, conduct house searches and take other steps to prevent unrest.

"It is a measure of protection and precaution," President Jacques Chirac said.

Chirac stressed that the measure was "temporary" and that regional officials would use it "only where it is strictly necessary." About 40 French towns, including France's third-largest city, Lyon, have used the measure to put curfews for minors into effect.

Overnight, the number of car-torchings — a barometer of the unrest — dropped again, with youths setting fire to 284 vehicles, compared with 374 the previous night, police said Monday. There were no clashes between police and rioters.

"The lull is confirmed," national police spokesman Patrick Hamon said. A week ago, 1,400 cars were burned in a single night.

The 18 nights of arson attacks and riots — set off by the accidental electrocution deaths of two teens who thought police were chasing them — began in Paris' poor suburbs, where many immigrants from North and West Africa live with their French-born children in high-rise housing projects.

France's worst unrest since the 1968 student-worker protests is forcing the country to confront decades of simmering anger over racial discrimination, crowded housing and unemployment.

In scattered attacks overnight Sunday-Monday, vandals in the southern city of Toulouse rammed a car into a primary school before setting the building on fire.

In northern France, arsonists set fire to a sports center in the suburb of Faches-Thumesnil and a school in the town of Halluin, the North regional government said.

A gas canister exploded inside a burning garbage can in the Alpine city of Grenoble, injuring two police officers, the national police said. Three officers were injured elsewhere.

From Sunday to Monday, 115 people were taken into custody, police said. Since the beginning of the unrest, 2,767 people have been arrested.

The French Federation of Insurance Companies gave a preliminary estimate for the total damage from the rioting — up to $234 million, including more than $23 million for torched cars.

Violence has decreased steadily since France declared a state of emergency Wednesday. The measure, unless extended, is set to end Nov. 20.

Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said the bill approved by the Cabinet on Monday would leave open the possibility of ending the emergency measures before three months are up, if order is restored.

Officials already are turning their attention to helping riot-hit towns recover: European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso proposed Sunday that the European Union give $58 million to France, and said it could make up to $1.17 billion available in longer-term support for suburban jobs and social cohesion.

Later Monday, Chirac was to make a televised statement about the violence — his third public comment since the unrest began, the Elysee Palace said. His comments Monday to the Cabinet were reported to journalists by Cope, the spokesman.

In the next few days, France is expected to start deporting foreigners implicated in the violence, a plan by law-and-order Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy that has raised concerns among human rights groups, and questions among other ministers.

Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said he agreed that illegal immigrants could be sent home, but not foreigners with permission to live in France.

"A French person who carried out a crime or a misdemeanor in France cannot be treated in one way while a foreigner with papers in order is treated in another," he told Europe-1 radio. "It's not possible."

Associated Press writers Christine Ollivier and Cecile Brisson contributed to this report.