BERLIN -- The president of Italy canceled a dinner meeting Wednesday with Peer Steinbrück, Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenger in the coming September elections, after Mr. Steinbrück referred to two prominent Italian political figures as "clowns."
Mr. Steinbrück, the candidate for the Social Democratic Party, made the comments at an event in Potsdam on Tuesday that was part of a nationwide tour for his own campaign, said his spokesman, Michael Donnermeyer.
During the event, Mr. Steinbrück described former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as "a clown with a special shot of testosterone." At another point, he extended his remarks to include Beppe Grillo -- a former comedian whose Five Star Movement won more votes than any other party in the Italian elections that ended Monday -- saying that "to a certain extent, I am upset that two clowns have won."
German leaders have not sought to hide their dislike for Mr. Berlusconi, who they say dragged Italy into the euro zone debt crisis. Before the Italian vote, several allies of Ms. Merkel made clear in public remarks that they supported Prime Minister Mario Monti and his program in Italy.
But Mr. Steinbrück's comments appeared to hit a nerve with President Giorgio Napolitano, who is overseeing the delicate negotiations to form a new government after the Italian vote failed to produce a clear governing majority in both houses of Parliament.
"We deeply respect Germany for its successes," Mr. Napolitano said Wednesday in a speech to the Italian community in Munich. "Germany was capable of resurrecting from its own ruins and rebuilding a new Europe together with Italy. We respect, but naturally we demand respect for our own country."
He is scheduled to meet with Ms. Merkel in Berlin on Thursday.
Both Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Grillo were highly critical of Ms. Merkel in their election campaigns, blaming the German government for having pushed Italy to enact painful economic austerity under Mr. Monti's government.
Steffen Seibert, the chancellor's spokesman, said the German government rejected the view that the outcome of the vote in Italy was a rejection of the austerity program that Ms. Merkel has championed as the best way for Europe to pull out of its financial crisis. He also said Ms. Merkel would work together with the new Italian government, "whatever it may be."
Mr. Steinbrück spoke with Mr. Napolitano by telephone later Wednesday to "clarify" the situation, Mr. Donnermeyer said. But the remarks drew criticism from other politicians in Berlin, where comments that can be viewed as meddling in other countries' affairs are considered undiplomatic.
Michael Meister, deputy leader of Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in the lower house of Parliament, said via Twitter that Mr. Steinbrück "behaves like a bull in a china shop."
It is not the first time that Mr. Steinbrück has angered one of Germany's European partners. In 2009, while serving as finance minister in Ms. Merkel's first government, he joked about Switzerland's fear of the German cavalry in the midst of a disagreement with the country over tax havens.
"With such comments, Mr. Steinbrück proves he is qualified for a TV talk show, but not for the chancellery," said Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the justice minister and deputy leader of the Free Democrats, Ms. Merkel's coalition partner.
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.