Brunel was charged with rape of minors over the age of 15 and sexual harassment, said a statement from the prosecutors' office. He was initially detained on Wednesday at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport as he was about to board a flight to Senegal.
Epstein, who was arrested in New York in July 2019 on charges of trafficking underage girls for sex, was found hanged in his New York jail cell the following month while awaiting trial over abuses involving girls at his Palm Beach home and on his private island in the Caribbean.
His ownership of an apartment in an upmarket Paris district and allegations from women who say they were abused in France prompted French prosecutors to open their own investigation.
That probe has focused on Brunel, who has been accused in American court documents of rape and of procuring young girls for his friend.
“This is what the victims have been waiting for for many years, some of them for more than 30 years,” said Anne-Claire Lejeune, a lawyer for several of the women.
The prosecutor's decision to charge him “gives meaning to what they have been saying for all these years,” she added.
Now in his 70s, Brunel began his career as a model scout who in 1978 was involved in setting up the prestigious Karin Models agency.
He then moved to the United States where he co-founded the Miami-based agency MC2.
Brunel's lawyer in October 2019 said he vehemently rejected allegations made in the press, but denied his client was on the run, insisting he was available for questioning.
French police last year raided the offices of Karin Models and searched Epstein's luxury Paris home not far from the Arc de Triomphe.
In US court documents, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, a key plaintiff against Epstein, accused the American tycoon of using her as a “sex slave” and said she had been forced to have sex with well-known politicians and businessmen, including Brunel.
She also alleged that Brunel would bring girls as young as 12 to the United States and pass them on to his friends, including Epstein.
These claims prompted a rare statement by Brunel in 2015 that itself broke years of silence in which he vehemently denied involvement, “directly or indirectly”, in Epstein's crimes.
Long before the Epstein scandal broke, Brunel was accused of rape by several models in a 1988 documentary by CBS.
On Thursday, Thysia Huisman, a former Dutch model who says she was drugged and raped by Brunel at the age of 18, had welcomed news of his initial arrest as “great news”.
Huisman said she was the first plaintiff to report Brunel to the authorities in 2019, and 11 other victims then came forwards. But these accusations risked never making it to court due to the statute of limitations.