ROME (Reuters) - President Sergio Mattarella called on Italian lawmakers to make fighting organized crime and corruption a priority, using his first speech as head of state to highlight two of the country's most persistent economic and social scourges.
"Corruption has reached an unacceptable level," said Mattarella, 73, who spoke after having taken his oath of office before a flag-festooned parliament.
Matterella then hailed as "heroes" anti-mafia prosecutors magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were assassinated by Sicily's Cosa Nostra mafia in 1992 in two separate, bloody attacks.
Fighting entrenched corruption and organized crime are "absolute priorities," he said.
While many political figures in Italy have urged the nation to combat organized crime, Mattarella's words have particular significance: Mattarella is the first Sicilian to hold Italy's highest office. His brother Piersanti was shot dead in 1980 by Cosa Nostra.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, when the Sicilian Mafia was Italy's most powerful organized group, Italy has experienced a rise in other crime groups, notably the 'Ndrangheta and Camorra groups. These have developed big franchises by infiltrating business activity in northern Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
Over the past two years, Italian prosecutors have been investigating several cases of corruption in business and politics.
The investigations have ranged from alleged corruption in the awarding of contracts to build venues for the upcoming Expo international fair in Milan, to alleged bribes surrounding the construction of Venice's flood barrier to a recent case involving local Rome politicians.
Mattarella, who is little known to most Italians, is a practising Catholic whose political career began in Italy's now-defunct Christian Democrats. He has served twice as defense minister and was most recently a judge of Italy's highest court, the Constitutional Court. He is Italy's twelfth president since World War Two.
While the role is largely ceremonial, Italy's president has broad powers during times of political turmoil. He can dissolve parliament and name new prime ministers.
"I think he is an extraordinary figure," said Elvira Piraino, who stood outside the presidential palace while Mattarella was being sworn in nearby in Parliament. "Let's hope he will live up to our expectations."
(Reporting by Isla Binnie, additional reporting by Gabriele Pileri; Editing by Alessandra Galloni and Andrew Heavens)