Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said the decision to open a preliminary investigation was based on "elements transmitted" to his office and "exchanges with American authorities, competent in the so-called Epstein affair."
The investigation involves information regarding minors 15 years old and older, a statement by Heitz said. No details were provided about what "elements" led to the probe and whether it might concern in-person testimony from alleged victims of Epstein who had maintained an apartment at a luxury address near the Arc de Triomphe.
Epstein, a magnate who rubbed shoulders with the elite and politically powerful and owned a Caribbean island, killed himself Aug. 10 in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York while awaiting trial next year on federal sex-trafficking charges. He was 66. Numerous women in the United States have claimed they were sexually abused by Epstein.
Homayra Sellier, who heads the France-based advocacy group, Innocence in Danger, told The Associated Press on Thursday that about 10 women have provided the group with testimony linked to Epstein. It has been pressing to get a case opened in France. The group welcomed the announcement of a French investigation in a statement posted on Facebook and said "information and testimonies" it has received were intended for investigators.
Two French secretaries of state — for women's rights and the protection of children — said this month that an investigation should be opened despite Epstein's death. "The American investigation has brought to light links in France," the officials, Marlene Schiappa and Adrien Taquet, said in an Aug. 12 statement.
Their move was met with finger-shaking from the justice minister, who said it amounted to interfering with the judicial system. Among those of potential interest to French investigators is Jean-Luc Brunel, a French modeling agent and frequent companion of Epstein who occasionally flew on his plane and visited him in jail in Florida where he served 13 months as part of a deal for a 2008 guilty plea, according to records.
One of the women who accused Epstein of sexually abusing her when she was a teenager, Virginia Giuffre, has claimed that she also had sex with Brunel, along with a long list of other prominent men, including the lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Britain's Prince Andrew.
All of those men have denied her allegations. Epstein, likewise, had denied all charges against him. In 2015, Brunel also strongly denied participating in any of Epstein's crimes. He even sued Epstein, saying that the bad publicity caused by his criminal case had damaged the reputation of Brunel's modeling agency, MC2. That case was still in litigation this year.
His whereabouts weren't known. The charges being probed in the investigation include rape of minors 15 and older, sexual aggression and criminal association with a view of committing crimes. The goal of the investigation is to uncover eventual infractions in France as well as on any French victims abroad, the statement said. Notably, the investigation will also try to seek out anyone of French nationality linked to crimes, the statement said.
In France, a preliminary investigation can lead to formal charges and a trial — or be thrown out if evidence doesn't warrant pursuing the case. Epstein had pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing girls as young as 14 and young women in New York and Florida in the early 2000s.
His lawyers maintained that the charges were nullified by a non-prosecution agreement he reached with the federal government when he pleaded guilty in 2008 to state charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution. Besides serving 13 months in jail, he was required to reach financial settlements with dozens of his alleged victims and register as a sex offender.
Epstein faced up to 45 years behind bars on federal sex trafficking and conspiracy charges unsealed last month. He had pleaded not guilty.
Angela Charlton in Paris and David Caruso in New York contributed to this report.