European stocks closed lower on Thursday, with sentiment remaining fragile after poor data from China and France, although the market trimmed some losses in afternoon trading after encouraging U.S. manufacturing data
China's manufacturing activity slowed to a seven-month low in February, a private survey showed on Thursday, once again stirring concerns over the health of the world's second-largest economy. The flash Markit/HSBC Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) fell to 48.3 from a final reading of 49.5 in January. This is the second straight month the PMI has been below 50, which signals contraction.
(Read More: China factory activity shrinks for a second month)
However, the U.S. flash PMI rose to 56.7 in February, its highest level in almost four years and up from January's 53.7 level, which had been a three-month low.
U.S. stocks edged higher after swinging between small gains and losses Thursday as investors digested the data, and following weaker-than-expected earnings from Wal-Mart.
In Asia, Japan's benchmark Nikkei index fell 2 percent after data showing that the country logged a record monthly trade gap in January. Imports outpaced exports resulting in a monthly trade deficit of 2.79 trillion yen ($27.30 billion), versus a 2.5 trillion yen shortfall anticipated by analysts.
Fresh figures from France also failed to brighten the mood. Consumer price inflation for the country posted a worse-than-expected dip of 0.6 percent for January, whereas Markit Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) for February showed a slide form last month and also failed to meet analysts' expectations. The French CAC 40 clocked losses nearly 1 percent in morning trade.
Germany's February PMIs fared a little better. Its component figure - measuring both manufacturing and service sectors - rose to 56.1, against a reading of 55.5 in the previous month. It was the highest the component figure has been since June 2011. For the euro zone as a whole, the component number edged slightly lower to 52.7 from the month before, which failed to meet analyst predictions of 53.1.
In Ukraine, the European Union has called an extraordinary meeting of its foreign ministers on Thursday as the violence in Kiev escalates, with the bloc expected to impose sanctions on those responsible for the bloodshed.
In Italy, prime minister-designate Matteo Renzi said Wednesday he plans to present his new cabinet to the Italian president on Saturday, after concluding talks with the main political parties. A confidence vote for his newly assembled cabinet could come as early as next Monday.
(Read More: Italy's Renzi expects government in place by Monday)
In corporate releases, Air France-KLM posted a swing into profit last year that managed to beat market expectations. However, shares fell 1.3 percent with the wider risk-off mood.
Likewise Danone shares edged lower despite the yogurt maker predicting a pickup in growth in 2014 and reporting better-than-expected underlying sales growth for 2013.
Meanwhile, defense contractor BAE posted a fall in net profit for 2013 and warned of reduced warnings in 2014; shares tanked nearly 9 percent.
French oil services group Technip saw its shares climb 5.8 percent after raising its dividend and posting an 8 percent rise in forth-quarter sales.