Jean-Claude Mas, whose breast implant firm Poly Implant Prothese (PIP) has sparked an international health scandal by using substandard silicone, was arrested on Thursday and could be charged with manslaughter, a French police source told Reuters.
He was arrested at around 7 a.m. (6 a.m. British time) at his home in southern France and police searched the premises. He will be held for 48 hours while investigators decide whether to charge him with involuntary manslaughter and causing injury.
A second PIP executive, former chief financial officer Claude Couty, was also arrested under an investigation that was opened in the southern port city of Marseille, close to PIP's former premises, on December 8.
The probe followed the death from cancer in 2010 of a woman with PIP implants, although health authorities in France and elsewhere have stressed the is no proven link to cancer from the PIP implants.
Lawyers for women who have filed complaints over their implants hailed the arrest as excellent news.
This is a comfort for the victims, said Laurent Gaudon, whose clients accuse PIP and surgeons who used its implants of fraud. It's the feeling that justice is advancing and they have not been forgotten. It's the assurance that the guilty are at last going to be held accountable.
Philippe Courtois, who represents a group of 1,300 people with PIP implants, said it was vital Mas was not allowed to flee justice. A degree of provisionary detention is desirable, he said.
Mas, who sold some 300,000 implants around the world, has acknowledged that he had used unapproved silicone but dismissed fears that it constituted a health risk.
Earlier in January, leaks from a police document showing that Mas admitted to wilfully lying about the poor quality of PIP's implants and said women filing complaints were just seeking money sparked a furious response in France.
PIP closed down in March 2010 after regulators discovered it was using a non-medical grade silicone, and in December 2011 the French government advised women with PIP implants to have them removed, sparking alarm around the world.
Around 2,700 women in France have filed complaints against Mas, and governments in several other countries such as Britain and Brazil have asked women to visit their doctors for checks.
France has called for tighter European Union regulations on medical devices in wake of the PIP health scare, saying suppliers should be made to carry the same sort of authorisation as suppliers of prescription medicine.
Several PIP managers were already due to appear in court in Marseille in October this year following a prior investigation into fraud and deceptive business practices by the company, once the world's third-largest global seller of breast implants.
(Reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Edited by Richard Meares)