By Jean-François Rosnoblet
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - Five French executives went on trial on Wednesday to jeers from victims for supplying women with hundreds of thousands of substandard breast implants and triggering a global health scare.
More than 300,000 women around the world were fitted over a decade with implants from the French company Poly Implant Prothese (PIP), and the trial includes 5,000 civil plaintiffs and 300 lawyers.
PIP's founder and long-time chief executive, 73-year-old Jean-Claude Mas, has admitted filling the implants with an unapproved homemade recipe made of industrial-grade silicone gel.
Mas and four PIP executives, including the chief financial officer, are charged with aggravated fraud and risk maximum prison terms of five years each, plus fines, for selling the implants around the world from 2001 to 2010, when they were ordered off the market.
Mas himself was in court an hour before the start of proceedings, which were mostly taken up with opening day legal arguments. "He bears the enormous weight of this trial on his shoulders," Mas's lawyer Yves Haddad said.
A vast exhibition building close to PIP's former premises has been set up as a makeshift courtroom to accommodate the huge crowds expected for the trial, due to last until mid-May.
Mas arrived at court under police escort and faced a crush of cameras as the trial began in the southern city of Marseille.
"Bastard!" shouted someone in the audience of some 300 victims as Mas appeared live on a giant video screen.
Of the more than 5,000 individual lawsuits filed against PIP - once the world's third-largest supplier of breast implants - and its executives, 220 have come from women outside France.
A French woman who alleges that one of her PIP implants began to leak four years after its insertion said outside the courtroom that victims were both scared and angry.
"We had foreign bodies put inside us that were flawed ... we could have maybe died from it. The anger is because we were tricked," said Tomassine Catalano. "It's frightening."
Leaving court, Mas sought to defend himself against such charges. "For 30 years I made prostheses," he told journalists. "I did my best to protect them (women)."
RUSH FOR REMOVAL
The scandal - revealed after inspectors pursuing a tip-off discovered vats of industrial-grade silicone outside the PIP factory in 2010 - sparked worldwide panic when the government recommended removal of the implants due to an abnormally high rupture rate.
Health experts say no link has been established between PIP implants and breast cancer, but in the months after the scandal broke, plastic surgeons around the world reported a flood of removal requests from worried patients.
Half the French women with PIP implants, or nearly 15,000, have already opted for removal, whether because of rupture or as a precaution, according to the government.
Mas was released in October from eight months in detention following a failure to post bail. He told police that 75 percent of PIP's implants had contained the homemade gel, which was never been approved by regulators, although he denies it was unsafe. He and the other executives deny the charges.
Investigators estimate that Mas's formula allowed PIP to save nearly $1.6 million in one year alone.
When Mas told the court he lived on a modest monthly retirement income of 1,800 euros, hoots erupted from the spectators, prompting the judge to warn that the next person to disrupt proceedings would be thrown out.
Minutes before the trial began, a court in Paris rejected a defense request to have the case thrown out.
Mas and PIP's former chief financial officer, Claude Couty are separately implicated in a civil case over fiscal fraud that has yet to reach trial. Mas is also under investigation for manslaughter following a complaint from the mother of a French woman with PIP implants who died of cancer in 2010.
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(Additional reporting by Lucien Libert; Writing By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Kevin Liffey)