* Weak French and Chinese data weigh on European equities
* Randstad slumps after warning of only gradual improvement
* FTSEurofirst down 0.6 pct, ESTOXX 50 down 0.7 pct
* FTSEurofirst had risen in 8 of last 10 sessions
* FTSEurofirst 300 in worst 1-day loss since Feb. 3
By Sudip Kar-Gupta
LONDON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Weak French and Chinese economic data knocked back European stock markets on Thursday, leaving a pan-European equity index nursing its worst intraday loss in more than two weeks.
The FTSEurofirst 300 index fell 0.6 percent to 1,331.18 points in early session trading, marking its biggest intraday fall since a 1.4 percent decline on Feb. 3.
The euro zone’s blue-chip Euro STOXX 50 index also weakened by 0.7 percent to 3,100.24 points.
The FTSEurofirst 300, which is up by 1.1 percent since the start of 2014, had risen in eight of the last 10 sessions but slipped back on Thursday in light of the weak economic data.
Although data on Thursday showed growth in Germany’s private sector, France’s service sector shrank the most in nine months in February.
Stock markets suffered a further blow after China’s flash Markit/HSBC Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) fell to a seven-month low of 48.3 in February from January’s final reading of 49.5. A reading below 50 indicates a contraction while one above shows expansion.
Investors were also rattled by minutes of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s latest policy-setting meeting, which indicated the U.S. central bank will keep trimming its bond-buying stimulus unless there is a significant economic surprise and could change its forward guidance on interest rates.
“The economic numbers are mixed. People are taking a step back and waiting for more visibility on the global economy before going back in to push markets higher,” said Francois Savary, chief investment officer at Swiss bank Reyl.
Dutch staffing company Randstad fell 8.8 percent to make it the worst-performing FTSEurofirst 300 stock in percentage terms.
Randstad expected only a gradual improvement in the current quarter due to the patchy nature of the fledgling global economic recovery.
Darren Courtney-Cook, head of trading at Central Markets Investment Management, said lingering signs of weakness in the global economy could lead to more sell-offs in coming sessions on the European equity markets.
“We’ve had bad Chinese data and the very fact that there is chatter about the Fed changing its guidance on rates is also weighing on sentiment,” said Courtney-Cook, who said he had sold positions on Germany’s DAX futures contract at 9,700 points before buying back in at 9,500 points.
Toby Campbell-Gray, head of trading at Tavira Securities, also expected European shares to fall in the next few sessions but remained more bullish on a longer time-frame over 2014, and Reyl’s Savary also said equities remained his preferred asset class.
“I do see the market as being a little bit softer in the next few days but I would use days like this to pick up quality stocks,” said Campbell-Gray.