But French business interests kept control of most of the Ivorian economy, and the expatriate community maintained a somewhat insular existence, driving French cars, eating at French restaurants and enjoying the protection of French soldiers based near Abidjan's international airport.
A period of political turbulence and growing nationalism began with Houphouet-Boigny's death in 1993. At the same time, the economy began to decline and a strain of xenophobia crept into national politics.
Christophe Gnonrou Sibi, 28, a taxi driver who has set up his own checkpoint near the residence of the Ivory Coast president, said the rebellion has given him a sense of purpose.
(Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
In 2000, Gbagbo, a former history professor, was elected president after the constitution was changed to disqualify any candidate without two Ivorian-born parents -- including a major opposition leader -- and thousands of Gbagbo's young supporters took to the streets.
Two years later, an attempted coup linked to rebels in the largely Muslim north was thwarted. In Abidjan, mobs of youths rallied again for Gbagbo. This time, their leaders had an organization, the Young Patriots, and a leader, Ble Goude.
Until recently, the movement's principal targets were the northern rebels and immigrants to Ivory Coast. But the events of the last 10 days have dramatically reordered Ivorian politics.
The trouble started Nov. 4, when Gbagbo broke a cease-fire with the rebels by attacking their positions in the north. Two days later, Ivorian fighter planes struck a position held by French peacekeepers, charged by the United Nations with protecting the terms of the cease-fire.
The French immediately counterattacked, destroying Ivory Coast's only two warplanes and some helicopters. French troops seized the Abidjan airport and several sections of the city, but over the next few days, rioters destroyed businesses and looted homes, particularly those owned by French or whites.
As unrest spread, thousands of French citizens -- including business owners and investors crucial to the economy -- fled in an airlift, reducing the expatriate population from more than 100,000 to about 10,000. It is not clear when, if ever, they will return.
'I Did It for My Country'
"Help me, doctor!" screamed Alaim Ouraga, a 19-year-old Young Patriot, clinging to his sister, Laura, with both arms. "I will never walk again!"
Ouraga, who was being treated Monday for a foot injury at Treichville University Hospital in Abidjan, was wounded during the demonstrations last week. His brother, Elvis, 27, was also shot. Laura, 23, said she was proud of the price the family had paid for their activism. "The men of this country, they are the future of this country," she said.
According to Ble Goude, 70 Young Patriots were killed and 1,400 injured during the clashes, mostly in Abidjan. His assertion could not be confirmed, but hospital officials reported treating hundreds of casualties, most of whom had bullet wounds.
At Treichville, doctors said they almost ran out of anesthesia within 24 hours. Later in the week, in a makeshift outdoor operating room under a blue and white tent, victims moaned as medics dressed their wounds. Claude Sodoua, an electrician, had his left leg amputated. He said he had been shot by French troops.
"I didn't do it for my president," said Sodoua, 29, his eyes glassy as medicine dripped into his arm through a tube. "I did it for my country."
Yet even as the violence ended and tension eased, passions fired by the confrontation remained high. Most Young Patriots have now returned to their homes, schools or jobs. But many said they were prepared to return to the streets as soon as Ble Goude called for the next demonstration.
Sibi, for one, said he planned to remain at his checkpoint until the French military left Ivory Coast, even if that meant continuing to sleep on a piece of cardboard, eating food donated by the government and wearing the same clothes he has had on since Nov. 6.
Every time a car approaches, Sibi and his friends check the trunk and back seat, pull aside their makeshift roadblock and let the vehicle through.
"I cannot go home," Sibi said. "We are here until the new order."