"We had the impression the cabin was being strafed with hailstones and there was violent turbulence. I was scared to death," Benjamin Cano, travelling in business class, told AFP by telephone following the mid-air drama late on Tuesday.
In a statement on Wednesday, Air France said the captain had elected to head back to Rio after the hailstones damaged a windshield.
"The flight was cancelled and the passengers transferred onto later flights," the carrier added.
The incident comes four years after an Air France Airbus 330 traveling from Rio to Paris crashed off the coast of Brazil, killing all 228 people on board.
Passengers on Tuesday's flight said signs of damage caused by the hailstones were clearly visible.
Photographs of the damage to the aircraft were published on Brazilian news site G1.
"When we got off we saw the impacts on the whole cabin – there were three huge ones on the windscreen," said Rio-based hotel owner Cano.
"The pilot just told us to stay with our seat belts attached. I don't know how long it lasted – three or four minutes. Far too long. Then, the pilot told us we were heading back to Rio.
"The crew were very professional, going round checking on everyone," added Cano, though he added he had doubts whether to board given the poor weather conditions and felt the flight should possibly have not taken off in the first place.
Rio sweltered in temperatures topping 40 Celsius on Tuesday before heavy evening storms hit.