Poland’s eurosceptic leaders marked a century of national independence on Sunday as around 200,000 people marched through the capital in a parade involving far-right groups and neo-fascist activists from Italy.
The march is a focus of debate about whether the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) tacitly encourages groups with roots in the fascist and anti-Semitic movements. The party won power in 2015 and Poland has since become increasingly isolated in Europe amid accusations of a tilt towards authoritarian rule.
Some marchers in Warsaw chanted: “Away with the EU” but there was no sign of white supremacist banners visible at last year’s march.
Government officials walked at a distance from the main marchers away from any overt displays of nationalism and they were kept separate by security forces.
“Thank you for coming here, for Poland, and for bringing the white and red (Polish) flag which saw our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers spill their blood,” President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, said at the start of the march.
“There is space for everyone under our flags,” he said.
Several hundred metres behind the government column, participants held banners saying “God, Honour, Homeland” and launched red flares.
Some chanted: “Pride, pride, national pride” and “Poland should be national not red or rainbow-coloured”, in a reference to the red flag of the Soviet Union and the symbol of gay pride.
Warsaw’s city mayor sought to ban a far-right march held on Nov. 11 annually for almost a decade but a court overruled her.
The government then agreed with organisers after last-minute talks to hold a joint event to mark a 100 years since Poland’s 1918 declaration of independence after an 18th century partition by Russia, Austria and Germany.
Last year, the annual far-right march was dotted with racist banners such as “pure blood, clear mind” and “Europe will be white or uninhabited”.
Those slogans fuelled concern about the rise of xenophobia in Poland at a time when other European countries are also grappling with a resurgence of the far right.
PiS says it rejects anti-Semitism and racism but critics accuse it of quietly siding with the far-right.
Since its election in 2015, the party has seen Poland increasingly isolated in Europe amid accusations of a tilt towards authoritarian rule. It promises more Catholic values and patriotism in public life and more state say in the economy.
The party taps into frustration with liberal values and anti-establishment sentiment that has galvanized far-right voters in other parts of Europe.
“Remember the shameful slogans of last year’s Nov. 11 march?,” centrist lawmaker Marcin Kierwinski said on Twitter on Saturday. “A year later, their authors are meeting with the president and prime minister instead of a prosecutor.”
The United States embassy in Warsaw issued a security alert ahead of the march.
Before the late-night agreement with the government on Friday to hold a joint event, organisers had said they expected the march to be the biggest far-right event in Europe in years.
“The organizers of the Independence March … are great patriots. In our times, the youth wasn’t this patriotic,” said Teresa Radzikowska, a 70-year-old retiree from central Poland who attended the march.
On Nov. 11 Poles commemorate the establishment of the second Polish republic in 1918 from territory seized by its eastern and Western neighbours in the 18th century, made possible by the defeat of Russia, Germany and Austria in World War One.
Also on Sunday, world leaders gather in Paris to mark the end of the war.