The Paris prosecutor has launched an investigation into the Jeffrey Epstein affair to examine suspected rape and sexual abuse of under-age girls in France or abroad, in which perpetrators or victims of the crimes may have been French.

Rémy Heitz, the prosecutor, issued a statement on Friday about the investigation following appeals from children’s rights campaigners and government ministers for an inquiry into the possible abuse of young women by Mr Epstein, who committed suicide in a New York jail this month, and his associates.

Mr Heitz said initial research and exchanges with the US authorities had led the prosecutor’s office “to open a preliminary investigation today” into possible crimes including rape of girls below the age of 15 and conspiracy to commit crimes punishable by at least five years in jail.

Epstein kept a luxury apartment on the Avenue Foch in the heart of Paris. An address book said to have been stolen by his late butler included the names of several contacts in the French capital.

Homayra Sellier, founder and president of Innocence en Danger, a France-based child protection group, told the FT when she first called for the investigation that France until recently was particularly tolerant of sex between men and underage girls, a practice regarded by many as “chic”.

“They were the elite, they were intellectuals, so it was OK, and prosecuting the powerful was almost impossible until now,” she said, condemning what she said was a “prostitution ring” created by Epstein and his accomplices.

Ms Sellier added that Roman Polanski, the French film director convicted in the US in 1977 for having sex with a 13-year-old girl, was not alone. “There are many others . . . There were others who openly spoke about having sex with kids,” she said. “My conclusion today is that France is one of the only countries where having sex with minors is ‘elegant’, ‘elite’.”

Marlène Schiappa and Adrien Taquet, junior ministers for women-men equality and for solidarity and health, had also called for an investigation in France.

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