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The growing far-right presence at Warsaw’s independence day march has long been a source of concern in Poland. This year, the concern went global.

Within hours of the march through the Polish capital on November 11, images of black-clad marchers carrying xenophobic, white supremacist banners flashed around the world, setting off an international wave of criticism.

Polish leaders condemned the extremist elements, with President Andrzej Duda saying there was “no room” for xenophobia, “sick nationalism” or anti-Semitism in Poland. Prosecutors have launched a probe into the event.

Many of the estimated 60,000 people there had no far-right affiliations, and reports of a banner at the march urging an Islamic holocaust turned out to be false.

However, coming at a time when the far-right is gaining ground across much of Europe, the march raised questions about the strength of extremist groups in a country long seen as the big success story of the EU’s eastward expansion. It has also stoked fears that fringe ideas may be seeping into the mainstream.

At the centre of the outcry were banners from a section of the march called the “black bloc” with slogans such as “Europe will be white or be deserted”, “White Europe of brotherly nations”, and “Pure blood, sober mind”.

Organisers insisted that marchers with such views made up a tiny fraction of the total, and that the event was actually about patriotism. “The fact that media focused on it is a surprise for us,” says Krzysztof Bosak, a member of the far-right National Movement and of the association that organised the march. “It seems like a planned campaign.”

Tomasz Szczepanski, founder of Niklot, a self-proclaimed neo-pagan nationalist group that marched in the black bloc, says that the “pure blood” message was not a racist motto but an admonition to shun drugs and alcohol, and that the march was “mainly a manifestation of national pride”.

But he says that he agrees “in principle” with the “Europe will be white or deserted” and “White Europe of brotherly nations” banners. “I think national identity isn’t only a civic identity but also an ethnic one,” he says. “That’s why among other things we are against multiculturalism, which we treat as an effort to liquidate European nations.”

Poland’s far-right scene is hard to quantify, but observers say the numbers are limited. “100,000 is the upper limit,” says Konrad Jajecznik, an expert on nationalism and ethno politics in central Europe, pointing out that a candidate for the National Movement received 77,600 votes — just 0.5 per cent of those cast — in the 2015 presidential election.

Radoslaw Markowski, a political science professor at Warsaw’s SWPS University, says: “There is a problem, but it’s still very marginal. In terms of raw numbers not a big issue — there are probably several thousand activists.”

Far-right movements often thrive in times of economic crisis. But one of the oddities of the current strength of the far-right in central Europe — far-right parties have recently made gains in Slovakia and the Czech Republic — is that it has coincided with a boom.

Instead, far-right groups have benefited from the sense that some people have been ignored or left behind by the region’s transformation in the wake of the EU’s eastern expansion, says Grigorij Meseznikov of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava.

“It’s about perception,” he argues. “Some people still feel that there are no politicians who care about them. That something is going wrong in society. And they feel that the real world is different from the way classical politicians are explaining it to them.”

The far right’s cause has been further helped by Europe’s migrant crisis, which sparked fears of a Muslim influx. In reality, very few refugees arrived in the region.

“Suddenly central European leaders had to come up with policies for something they had no experience of dealing with,” says Mr Jajecznik. “The radicals took advantage, and quickly adopted their anti-minority sentiment to anti-migrant sentiment.”

The Polish government’s hardline rhetoric on the threats posed by immigrants has also provided political space for far-right ideas to gain traction, says Rafal Pankowski, from the Never Again Association, a Polish anti-racism group. “The most important thing is that there is an increased element of legitimacy for their ideology coming from mainstream politics,” he says. “There is a sense of triumphalism on the far right.”

If the far-right is to be tamed, mainstream conservatives need to do more to challenge extremists head on, he argues. “Every year the far-right presence in the streets through the independence march has become bigger, and nobody really dares to challenge or check it,” he says. “And that is the problem: if far-right nationalism is not challenged, it grows.”

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