WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Tens of thousands of Poles joined on Monday in a yearly Independence Day march organized by nationalist groups, an event that has grown over the past decade as the far right across Europe has strengthened and gained a degree of social acceptance.
Participants burned flares and shot off firecrackers, creating a thick cloud of smoke in the national colors of white and red. City hall estimated that 47,000 people took part, while organizers put the number at 150,000.
As participants marched, a group of counter-protesters protected by police sang "Bella ciao," an Italian anti-fascist resistance anthem, and chanted "Warsaw free from fascism," among other slogans.
Nearby, another small group of counter-protesters were forcibly removed by police after gathering on the march route with a huge banner that said "Constitution," representing their support for liberal democracy.
Elsewhere, another small anti-fascist march also took place.
Throughout the day, observances, Masses, runs and historic reconstructions were held in cities and small towns to commemorate Polish statehood regained at the end of World War I, after 123 years of foreign rule.
However, on Monday as in recent years, much of the attention was captured by the nationalists.
Several years ago, the marches were marked by rioting, though they are now heavily protected by police and are mostly without major incident. Two years ago, some participants carried banners with white supremacist slogans, creating an international scandal. However, many people, some with their children, join the yearly march now, considering it a show of patriotism, and are either unaware or not bothered by the fact that that it is organized by far-right groups.
The symbol of this year's march is a raised fist holding a rosary. Organizers — the National Radical Camp, the National Movement and the All Polish Youth — called it a symbol of Roman Catholic resistance against growing calls for gay rights.
Some prayed holding rosaries at the start of the march.
Last year, for the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, President Andrzej Duda and other top leaders marched ahead of the nationalists in Warsaw. But the leaders did not join this year's march. Their participation last year was widely understood as an attempt by the conservative ruling party, Law and Justice, to curry favor with nationalists on the hard right to prevent them from forming a political party that would drain away some of its voters.
That strategy failed, however. In October, a far-right party called Confederation won 7% and entered parliament for the first time.