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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Killing Spotlights the French Mob

PARIS -- The murder of a French member of parliament who was crusading against corruption has highlighted alleged links between organized crime, real estate speculators and politicians on the Riviera.

The death of Yann Piat, gunned down in her car Italian-style by a hit-man on a motorbike last Friday, drew sudden attention to what experts say is a growing sleaze factor in France's sunbelt.

"There is a curious social life in the south of France, where former gangsters, financiers, businessmen and some politicians mingle in a climate of connivance," said Francois d'Aubert, author of a parliamentary report on the Mafia in France.

"In the Alpes-Maritimes and Var region, you find all-purpose financiers who recycle drugs money one day and manage investments like honest family men the next," he said.

D'Aubert said the interpenetration between organized crime and local politics had grown so strong that in some towns the state should dissolve the municipal council and impose direct rule from Paris.

Piat's murder triggered French headlines about the "Costa del Crime" and "Palermo on the Var." but the experts have said there was nothing especially Italian about her killing.

It was more likely to have been the work of local underworld gangs, possibly allied with corrupt politicians.

A public prosecutor on Wednesday released all but six of the 32 local politicians and small-time hoodlums arrested on Tuesday in the hunt for Piat's murderers.

The nine politicians detained were all freed, suggesting investigators did not believe they were directly involved.

Most of those still in custody are relatives or associates of Toulon underworld boss Jean-Louis Fargette, who was killed last March in San Remo, Italy, where he had gone into exile, partly as a result of Piat's campaigning.

Nicknamed "Soapy" because he slipped through police fingers so often, Fargette was regarded as the godfather of gambling, prostitution, racketeering and the drugs trade in the port city.

Piat won election to parliament last year as an outsider against vested local interests by denouncing drug trafficking and attempts to recycle the proceeds in real estate speculation on the scenic Hyeres peninsula, a playground of the rich.In such desirable areas, planning permission to build houses or hotels can be worth gold, and possibly worth killing for.

Hardline Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, himself a Riviera politician with a rocky southern accent, vowed after Piat's death to clean up local politics.

But his own Gaullist RPR party, and its UDF coalition partner, which between them control virtually the entire Riviera except for Marseille, a legendary gangland city, will have to start by cleaning their own stables.

A few days after Piat died, a judge in Uruguay agreed to extradite former Nice Mayor Jacques Medecin, a Gaullist, to stand trial in France for corruption and embezzlement.

Another conservative Riviera mayor, Jean-Claude Guibal of Menton on the Italian border, recounted this week that he had regularly received noctural telephone threats, dead birds dumped on his doorstep and gambling chips on his desk because he refused to licence casinos.

He said saboteurs had tried to kill him by removing the bolts from his car wheel. The wheel came off just before he drove onto a motorway.

Investigators say that several Italian gangsters, chiefly of the Neapolitan Camorra, the Naples version of the Sicilian Mafia, have in recent years sought refuge on the French Riviera.

According to d'Aubert's commission, Camorra bosses have sought to launder their drugs profits through casinos and tourist complexes on the French coast.