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The Implications of Immigration System: Practices of Public and Private Definition and Redefinition of Binational Intimacy in France and in Belgium

Laura Odasso

Research Framework: In France and Belgium, since mid-1990, legislative provisions have tightened the conditions for concluding unions between a citizen and a non-European national and permitting the latter of stay. The suspicion of the immigration system, delineating a selective access to the nation by the construction of eminently normative forms of “making family”, impact couples’ intimacy.

Objectives: This article examines the changes in binational couples’ intimacy in the light of their encounters with the immigration system.

Methodology: The empirical material comes from a multi-site ethnography conducted by collecting the life histories of the partners (foreign and national) of about one hundred couples—analyzed with the method of “biographical policies’ evaluation”—and by participant observations within associative structures in French and Belgian cities.

Results: Over the course of administrative formalities, the couples’ privacy becomes “public” as they are invited to perform the “lovers” as the immigration system wishes. The resulting effect on the boundaries of their intimacy differs according to the permeability of the relationship to state interference. Different types of intimacy in adherence or in contrast with the state logic stands out, they are defined as “two-speed”, “resilient”, “in exchange” and “in splinters”.

Conclusions: The intimacies identified are the results of a “pact” between partners and the work that they have performed at the borders of the state encounters. In the wake of “intimate citizenship”, such work articulates private decisions and public practices, and moral dilemma relating to “family life”.

Contributions: The article shows the interweaving of institutional boundaries, worked by public policies, and conjugal, worked by emotions, expectations and exchanges, thanks to the sociology of preformative and intimate practices.