Polls predicted more than half the country intended taking the day off despite official urging to do otherwise.
The strike brought public transport to a standstill in nearly 100 towns and cities, post offices and town halls were closed, and schools offered skeleton service.
Analysts believe the show of defiance is reflective of a mood of widespread discontent – a point that could impact on the government of President Jacques Chirac as it battles a toughly fought campaign to promote the “yes” vote in France’s May 29 referendum on the EU constitution.
Pentecost, or Whit Monday, has been a holiday for French workers since the late 19th century. But the government designated it to be an annual “day of solidarity” following a heatwave in 2003 which killed an estimated 15,000 mainly elderly people.
The abolition of the holiday was supposed to raise two million euros (A$3.3m) annually for a special fund for the aged and handicapped.
But with over two-thirds of France opposing the plan, the unions took advantage of the mood of contention to call for a day of strikes and stoppages.
“You cannot think that we can give up a day’s holiday just like that,” said Bernard Thibault, leader of the large CGT.
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin was due to assess the response to his call to work in a television interview on Tuesday.
The extent of the disruption varied across France.
In Paris the metro and buses operated normally, as did the national railway system, but public transport was paralysed in several major cities such as Strasbourg, Montpellier and Lille.
Worryingly for President Chirac, the dispute was being partly blamed for a spurt in the “no” campaign against the EU constitution.
According to the latest poll, 54 percent of the population now intends to vote against the plan.
Many unionists see the proposed constitution as a threat to the French social model, believing it offers French workers too little protection and enshrines a more Anglo-Saxon economic approach.