U.S. setting bad example on protectionism - Sarkozy

LONDON, March 12 (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy of France accused Washington on Friday of setting the wrong example on protectionism, suggesting there had not been a level playing field in the race for a $50 billion refuelling plane contract.

U.S. defence contractor Northrop Grumman and its European partner EADS withdrew on Monday from a renewed competition to supply tankers to the U.S. Air Force, saying the rules favoured rival bidder Boeing, the top U.S. exporter.

Boeing is now the sole known bidder for the contract.

Asked what he thought of the issue during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Sarkozy delivered a scathing attack on how the United States had handled the tender.

“I did not appreciate this decision ... This is not the right way to behave,” Sarkozy said.

“Such methods by the United States are not good for its European allies, and such methods are not good for the United States, a great, leading nation with which we are on close and friendly terms,” he said.

“If they want to be heard in the fight against protectionism, they should not set the example of protectionism.”

For EADS EAD.PA, the parent company of the Airbus plane-maker, the stand-down was a setback in a major push to pierce the lucrative U.S. military market.

Northrop and EADS won the last competition in February 2008, but the Pentagon cancelled that deal after government auditors upheld a protest by Boeing. (Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Adrian Croft and Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Jon Hemming)