Twenty-seven year old Juliano Verbard escaped with two followers in a helicopter earlier hijacked by three accomplices, also cult members, the Izvestiya paper said. The prison is on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.
Verbard is the spiritual leader of the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary cult, which is based on the island. The other two prisoners, Alexin Jismy and Fabrice Michel, were serving time on kidnapping charges. The group has no connection to the Catholic Church.
The cult members hijacked the helicopter after pretending to be tourists. After subsequently landing in the prison's exercise yard, Verbrand and his followers flew away. They have not yet been located.
"One of them put a gun to my temple while another threatened to set fire to a bottle of petrol he had in his hand with a cigarette lighter," the pilot of the helicopter told the local Antenne Reunion radio station.
Neither of the pilots was harmed.
France has encountered 10 such helicopter escapes since 1986, the last one occurring in 2007. Since 2007, all prisons in mainland France have been equipped with a mesh net over the top of the grounds. However, the prison in Saints Denis on Reunion was not equipped with one.
Verbard started the cult in 2002 and managed to persuade hundreds of people that the Virgin Mary appeared to him. He charged his followers some $40 to take part in "appearance ceremonies."