By Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) - French public sector workers went on strike on Tuesday against President Emmanuel Macron's plans to cull jobs and toughen pay conditions, forcing airlines to cancel hundreds of flights and disrupting school activities.
Civil servants, teachers and nurses marched through cities across France, from Toulouse in the south to Strasbourg in the east, before the day's biggest rally in Paris.
It is the first time in a decade that all unions representing more than 5 million public workers have rallied behind a protest call.
Turnout is an important indicator of public appetite for protest against Macron's social and economic reforms, which the former investment banker says are needed to unlock economic growth and put public finances on a more sustainable footing.
As in other recent demonstrations, the number of protesters appeared low. While unions said some 400,000 people turned out across the country, the interior ministry put the figure at 209,000.
The economy ministry said some just 14 percent of state civil servants had been on strike and just 9.5 percent in local administration.
Protests last month against labor law reform that were led by private sector unions failed to persuade Macron to change policy course, but the French labor movement has traditionally been more muscular in the public sector.
"We want to make our voices heard after months and months of attacks against the public sector and its workers," said Mylene Jacquot, head of the civil servants' federation at the moderate CFDT, France's biggest trade union.
"In particular, we want to force the government to make good on its promise regarding our spending power."
Strike notices were lodged in schools, hospitals, airports and government ministries over plans to ax 120,000 jobs, freeze pay and reduce sick leave compensation.
The civil aviation authority said 30 percent of flights at airports nationwide had been canceled but there was no disruption on the rail network. The Ministry of Education said fewer than one in five teachers were on strike.
Macron, 39, has come under fire in recent days from political opponents and the unions for treating workers with contempt after he was recorded describing a group of workers at a struggling factory as "kicking up a bloody mess".
That misstep came weeks after he called those who resisted reform "slackers".
As crowds gathered near Paris's Place de la Republique, protesters held aloft a placard with portraits of Macron, his prime minister and finance minister reading: "The ones kicking up the bloody mess."
Minor scuffles broke out between protesters and security services. Eight people were arrested, the police said in a statement.
Unions have been divided over Macron's reforms so far, with only the Communist Party-rooted CGT spearheading street demonstrations against the loosening of employment laws.
In Lyon, Force Ouvriere union boss Jean-Claude Mailly said he would not support the CGT's call for the labor law decrees to be scrapped after weeks of negotiations between government and unions. But he said there would be other battles to fight with a united front.
"There are other issues ahead: unemployment insurance, pension reform, the matter of public services," Mailly said.
(Additional reporting by Caroline Pailliez and Emmanuel Jarry; Writing by Richard Lough and John Irish; Editing by Richard Balmforth)