A review of La Lutte Des Signes: 40 Ans d’Autocollants Politiques, by Zvonimir Novak
Zvonimir Novak argues that in France, progressively over the last 40 years, the autocollant has become the “means of expression of those who do not have access to the mainstream media”.
Not just in France, but (he says) in Calcutta, in Dakar, worldwide.
I don’t know why the autocollant is still rare in Britain. Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty are now pioneering this field, producing a first range of autocollants.
The relative rarity of autocollants in Britain reflects in the fact that there is no special English word for them. The English word “sticker” covers a much wider range.
The small sticker, usually round, maybe three or four centimetres diameter, worn on clothing or such, is a species of autocollant, and exists also in France.
In France, though, the typical autocollant is about A6 size (about 15cm by 10) and rectangular. It may be stuck on your jacket, your bag, your helmet, your car, or your notebook, but it is also stuck on public places — lamp-posts, bus stops, walls, wherever.
It is, says Novak, “coming to displace the poster” as a means of publicity by the not-well-off, because it is so much more flexible. In the late 40s, according to Novak, walls in Paris were plastered with political posters, but postering is now more difficult and expensive. Political posters are in decline.
The autocollant is both highly visible and “the centre of an underground world, the world of the activists”.
It is the descendant, argues Novak, not of the poster, which evolved from wordy wall-newspapers, but of punchier “vignettes” and “papillons”. He reproduces “papillons” — small pieces of gummed paper, which had to be moistened to become sticky — produced by the CGT, the revolutionary syndicalist trade union movement in its heyday around 1905-6.
The technical breakthrough which enabled autocollants by allowing for the printing of self-adhesive papers was made in 1935 in the USA. The first use of political autocollants on a large scale was in the 1960 US presidential election. Then, they were mostly “bumper stickers”, to be stuck on cars.
Autocollants reached France in 1969, in the presidential campaign of the mainstream-right candidate Georges Pompidou. At that time, they were expensive, an option only for well-off organisations.
They became cheaper, took off rapidly after 1974, and have proliferated since.
Novak largely limits himself to the autocollants produced by political parties. He surveys some produced by anti-fascist, international-solidarity, and feminist campaigns, but explicitly (to keep the range manageable) excludes autocollants produced by trade unions and pressure groups.
Novak’s book was put out by an anarchist publishing house. He gives much space to anarchist stickers, and with some justice. Some anarchist groups have developed verve and talent in the production of visually striking autocollants with short, striking words.
There is a “branding” to French anarchist autocollants, for example in their almost-always red-and-black colour schemes.
The main French Trotskyist groups also display a “branding” in their autocollants. Lutte Ouvrière’s autocollants are distinctive in their plain, straightforward style: a short text, a bit longer than from the anarchists, maybe a dozen words, in a standard typeface, on a plain background, without pictures.
Novak is, I think, too sour about LO’s output. Some LO autocollants may be dull, dour, and formulaic; but LO has also had autocollants, not reproduced in the book, which were witty.
The “Lambertist” POI “brands” its stickers with a characteristic colour scheme, almost always red-on-yellow.
The autocollants from LCR and the NPA have been more experimental, with varied colour schemes, “busy” use of graphics and images, and varied typefaces and alignments of text.
A series of autocollants over the years, and over decades now for many activist groups in France, is thus not just a series of messages, but a visible, accessible public identity for the group.