* Top shipping firm signals Iran pullout
* Finnish mining firm sees impact on future business
* EU struggling to respond to U.S. sanctions move on Iran (Adds more quotes, detail)
By Gabriela Baczynska
SOFIA, May 17 (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday Europe would try to protect its companies doing business with Iran from U.S. sanctions, reimposed over Tehran's nuclear programme, but said giants like Total would make their own choices.
Macron's spoke as the world's largest container shipping firm, A.P. Moller-Maersk, followed the French oil major in saying it would quit Iran, denting EU efforts to save the nuclear accord with Tehran and protect European companies doing business with the Islamic Republic.
"International companies with interests in many countries make their own choices according to their own interests. They should continue to have this freedom," he said on arriving for a second day of EU leaders' talks in the Bulgarian capital.
"But what is important is that companies, and especially medium-sized companies which are perhaps less exposed to other markets, American or others, can make this choice freely."
The EU wants to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, which offers the Islamic Republic relief from economic sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme and Europe sees as an important element of international security.
However, EU officials say there is no easy way to protect EU firms from U.S. sanctions and that it will take time for the bloc to devise what will likely be a complex mix of national and EU-level measures.
Ignoring European support for the nuclear pact, U.S. President Donald Trump branded the agreement as "the worst deal ever" and announced on May 8 the United States was pulling out.
Total on Wednesday said it might quit a multi-billion-dollar gas project unless it secured a waiver from U.S. sanctions. Tehran had repeatedly hailed the project as a symbol of the nuclear accord's success.
CEO Soren Skou told Reuters on Thursday that A.P. Moller-Maersk was following suit.
"With the sanctions the Americans are to impose, you can't do business in Iran if you also have business in the U.S., and we have that on a large scale," Skou told Reuters in an interview following the firm's first-quarter report.
"I don't know the exact timing details, but I am certain that we're also going to shut down (in Iran)," Skou said.
Finnish mining technology company Outotec said U.S. sanctions would slow down and complicate its ties with Iran but it was too early to say if it would leave.
Macron, voicing understanding for big companies anxious to protect their U.S. sales, said France backed proposals by the European Commission to protect and compensate European companies that might be hit by U.S. sanctions for trading with Iran.
They are all but certain to fall short of the type of firm guarantees that the Iranian authorities have been seeking.
President Hassan Rouhani has said Iran would remain committed to the deal, which China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany also signed, provided those powers ensured Iran was protected from sanctions. (Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Editing by Jon Boyle)