The “yellow vest” movement began last November but had tapered off over the summer, but its leaders hope to galvanise support for a fresh wave of rallies across the country as the government begins a reform of France's retirement system.
Officials in the southern city of Montpellier said around 2,000 people gathered in the city centre — organisers put their numbers at closer to 5,000.
During clashes between police and protesters, officers fired tear gas to try to disperse the crowd and a firebomb wrecked an unoccupied police car.
Several storefronts were vandalised and police said seven people had been detained.
Police made nine arrests, mainly for throwing objects at the police. Seven police officers were slightly injured.
The region's officials blamed what it said were around 500 members of the hard-core Black Bloc protesters for the violence. Jacques Witkowski, the prefect for the Herault region, which covers Montpellier, condemned the “very aggressive behaviour” of the Black Bloc activists who he said had come to the protest determined to smash things.
Organisers of the protests had called for a major demonstration Montpellier, long a stronghold of the movement.
Smaller rallies took place in other cities around France, including Paris, Marseille, Rouen, Lille, Strasbourg, Dijon, Bordeaux and Toulouse.
There were clashes in the northern city of Rouen, where around 500 demonstrators turned out, including members of the CGT trades union.
Police arrested 26 people and cautioned 111. Shop windows and some in the city's court were smashed. Police said 650 people turned out in the northern city of Lille — organisers put the figure at 1,500 — in a march that passed off peacefully.
“We're all together, we want the government to drastically change its policies… and radical change can only come when this government resigns,” said Alexandre Chantry, a yellow vest organiser in Lille.
Police said around 800 people demonstrated in Paris, where the authorities have maintained a ban on protests at the Champs-Elysees, scene of major clashes and extensive destruction during past protests. Officers said they arrested 107 people in the capital.
Demonstrators in the southwestern city of Bordeaux were prevented from going anywhere near a conference being held by the ruling Republic on the Move party (LREM). Police arrested five people and kept four in custody, said the regional authority.
The yellow vest movement began last November, triggered by anger over a fuel tax increase. It quickly evolved into a broader movement against Macron, accused of ignoring the day-to-day struggles of low-income earners in small-town and rural France.
The protests rocked Macron's presidency, and he eventually unveiled nearly 17 billion euros ($18.8 billion) in wage boosts and tax cuts for low earners to quell the protests. He vowed to better address voters' grievances after months of town-hall debates.
But after attracting 282,000 people nationwide at the first day of protest on November 17, their numbers have fallen sharply by last spring, and only sporadic protests were seen over the summer.