* FTSEurofirst 300 down 0.5 pct, Euro STOXX 50 down 0.7 pct
* China's lower-than-expected PMI weighs on sentiment
* Companies with big Russia exposure hammered again
* Buy French, Italian stocks over UK, German ones -SocGen
By Blaise Robinson
PARIS, March 24 European stocks slipped on Monday, trimming last week's lofty gains, as data showing China's manufacturing activity contracted in the first quarter of 2014 revived worries over the outlook for global growth.
Investors' appetite for stocks was also dented by tensions simmering between the West and Russia, with shares of companies which have a big exposure to Russia under renewed pressure.
Finnish tyre maker Nokian Renkaat was down 1.5 percent, Austrian lender Raiffeisen Bank International down 2.4 percent and Danish brewer Carlsberg down 1 percent. The three firms derive about 26 percent, 22 percent and 17 percent respectively of their revenues from Russia, according to data from MSCI.
NATO's top military commander said on Sunday Russia had built up a "very sizeable" force on its border with Ukraine, and that Moscow may have a region in another ex-Soviet republic, Moldova, in its sights after annexing Crimea from Ukraine.
At 1117 GMT, the FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares was down 0.5 percent at 1,300.27 points, after gaining 1.8 percent last week.
China's flash Markit/HSBC Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) fell to an eight-month low of 48.1 in March, a weaker-than-expected figure. The index has been below the 50 level since January, indicating a contraction in the sector this year.
"As the data shows this morning, China's slowdown is sharper than what most people had expected, which fuels worries about the impact on global growth," said Philippe de Vandiere, analyst at Altedia Investment Consulting in Paris.
"But Chinese authorities have plenty of tools to avoid a hard landing, and we know that the country's transition to an economic model more focused on consumer spending will lower its growth rate a bit, so no big concern here."
Industrial stocks lost ground, with both Siemens and Schneider Electric down 0.8 percent.
The overall market's losses were cushioned, however, by data showing French business activity grew in March at the fastest pace in more than 2-1/2 years, with Markit's composite PMI jumping to 51.6 from 47.9 in the previous month.
Having lagged the recovery in much of the euro zone in recent months, the index for France surged through the key 50-point threshold dividing contraction from expansion to reach its highest level since August 2011.
Roland Kaloyan, Societe Generale's head of European equity strategy, favours the French and Italian stock markets over those of Switzerland, Britain and Germany.
"All the non-euro zone countries have benefited from risk aversion in the euro area but they now seem to have run out of steam after four years of impressive performance," Kaloyan wrote in a strategy note.
"We particularly like the French and Italian equity markets. Both would benefit from a major political and economic shift in the coming years. Given their attractive valuations, we believe that both markets have huge potential to deliver."
Overall for the euro zone, data showed on Monday the pace of growth among the region's private businesses has barely slowed from February's 2-1/2 year high this month, although firms were forced to cut prices again to maintain the momentum, fuelling worries of deflation.
Around Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 index was down 0.4 percent, Germany's DAX index down 0.6 percent, and France's CAC 40 down 0.7 percent. The euro zone's blue-chip Euro STOXX 50 index was down 0.7 percent.
So far this year, the FTSE 100 is down 3.2 percent, the DAX is down 2.8 percent and the CAC is up 0.3 percent, while Milan's FTSE MIB is up 10 percent.
"The equity market's long-term trend is still positive," Barclays France director Franklin Pichard said. "But in the short term, indexes could remained stuck in this consolidation zone and within tight ranges."
Shares in Bayer were among the biggest European blue-chip losers, down 2 percent, after Britain's healthcare cost agency recommended the state health service not use the firm's new prostate cancer drug Xofigo.
Europe bourses in 2014: link.reuters.com/pad95v
Asset performance in 2014: link.reuters.com/rav46v
Today's European research round-up (Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta in London; Editing by Catherine Evans)