A well-connected financier who moved in elite circles among celebrities and political figures, Epstein had long faced allegations of sexually abusing dozens of young girls in the early 2000s. He was convicted in the United States after admitting to soliciting a minor for prostitution in 2008 and served 13 months in a county jail.
After scrutiny of the plea deal in that case, Epstein was arrested again July 6 on federal charges of trafficking minors in Florida and New York. The 66-year-old was found dead in his jail cell on Aug. 10, having hung himself.
In his statement, Heitz said the decision to open the preliminary investigation was based on an “exchange with relevant U.S. authorities in the so-called ‘Epstein’ case” but did not detail specific allegations.
The New York-born Epstein was known to have a number of links to France, including owning a luxury home in Paris, not far from the Arc de Triomphe, estimated to be worth $8.9 million. French media outlets reported that he had been staying in Paris this summer before he was arrested in the United States.
A book of contacts that Epstein kept and that was published in full by the website Gawker in 2015 featured a lengthy list of French phone numbers, including numerous listings under the title “massage.”
Among the French names in the book is Jean-Luc Brunel, a 72-year-old French national and model scout who is the founder of a Miami-based modeling agency named MC2. Brunel is a longtime associate of Epstein’s who has faced accusations of aiding the American’s alleged sex trafficking before.
In court filings from 2015 that were unsealed earlier this month, one of Epstein’s accusers, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, said that Brunel brought teenage girls to the United States on model visas for sex with Epstein and others. Roberts Giuffre also said that she had sex with Brunel on the orders of Epstein.
Brunel has previously denied allegations he was “directly or indirectly” involved in Epstein’s crimes, but the arrest of Epstein this summer has put a spotlight on accusations against Brunel — including some from many years before he met Epstein.
The Washington Post recently spoke to a number of women who accused Brunel of sexual misconduct in the past.
“I hope he stops, finally,” said former model Thysia Huisman, who told The Post that Brunel abused her when she was 18 in 1991 and that she would be willing to talk to French law enforcement about it. “I hope he has some kind of sentence, that he’s punished for what he did to a lot of girls.”
After Epstein’s suicide, two French ministers released a statement this month calling for an investigation to better understand his links to France.
In their statement, Marlène Schiappa, a minister for gender equality, and Adrien Taquet, a minister for child protection, said that Epstein’s suicide had left “many unanswered questions” that must be addressed to protect other young people.
Under French law, a preliminary investigation could lead to charges if prosecutors uncover evidence, but the case can be dropped if enough evidence is not found.
Though the source of Epstein’s large wealth remains uncertain, during the 1990s and the early 2000s he moved with ease in high society, befriending President Bill Clinton and future president Donald Trump, as well as Prince Andrew of the British royal family and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.
All have distanced themselves from Epstein, with Prince Andrew announcing this week that he was “appalled” by the claims of sexual abuse.
Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.